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Sustainable digital lightness
Giacinto Di Pietrantonio11 Oct 20224 min read

Sustainable digital lightness

Ecology is a theme that is widely addressed by various artists. There are several movements whose central theme is sustainability and nature. But are all art forms really sustainable?

The theme of this article is art and ecology, where the watchwords are, among others awareness, resilience, reconciliation, relationship, empathy, respect, interaction, social justice, democracy, risk, climate change, earth, sky, water, environment and sustainability.

There are issues that art has been addressing since the 1960s, when artists came out of their studios, not to go and paint en plein air like the Impressionists a century earlier, but to make works in the environment using the environment itself.

American artists like Robert Smitshon, Michael Heizer, James Turrel, British artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, Italian artists Mario Merz, Giuseppe Penone and Giovanni Anselmo, or the German Joseph Beuys, who also co-founded Germany’s Green Party, created the artistic movement that took the name Land Art and Arte Povera (Poor Art).

These artists produced works that used vast tracts of land, like Smithson's 1970 Spiral Jetty (460 metres long and 4.60 metres high) in Great Salt Lake, Utah; or 1969 Double Negative, a 535-metre long, 15-metre-deep trench dug into the side of a mountain in the Nevada desert by Michael Heizer. Another example are the kilometres-long walks that took days in the most inhospitable places like deserts, glaciers, forests and prairies by Long and Fulton, as well as Mario Merz's bundles, Penone's trees, Anselmo's salads, and the fat, felt and planting of oaks (7000 in Kassel alone) by Beuys.

Biological Solidarity

These leading international artists also include Piero Gilardi, who was initially part of the Arte Povera group, as he is the one who dealt with, and still deals with, what he calls 'biological solidarity' with works of various kinds ranging from the PAV (Living Art Park) foundation in Turin to electronic, digital and interactive works, in unexpected times, even before the environmental climate crisis today. The PAV is a space for indoor and outdoor art, an interdisciplinary, educational place.

Gilardi created this meeting place between humans, art and nature in 2008, starting from his initial interest in the 1960s with the famous Tappeti natura (Nature Carpets). In the late 1970s he moved on to technologically interactive works such as Il Banano danzante (The Dancing Banana Plant), 1989, or Inverosimile (Unbelievable),1990, an interactive, fragrant, musical, mobile vineyard. A recent experiential installation (2018) was Resilience, in partnership with video-maker Heinrich Vogel, where the user is invited to interact with a computer, beginning the story of a relationship between humans and trees.

An indissoluble relationship

The UN is devoting much of its attention to the light, sustainable relationship of digital art and nature by drawing up a set of best practices for an acceptable level of a world free not only from poverty and war, but also rich in its natural climate.

This is why the UN, through an alliance with Google Arts, is promoting the Heartbeat of the Earth theme dedicated to the environment. This is a hub in which artists are invited to create works that interpret scientific data in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Many artists are involved in the sustainable link between digital art and ecology like Ed Kashi and Everyday Climate Change with works that are the result of a partnership between photojournalist Ed Kashi, a contributor to National Geographic since 2015 and founder, along with other artists, of the Instagram profile Every Climate Change, where you can see shots by artists from all over the world documenting the serious results of climate change and suggesting concrete solutions.

Insidious Rising, on the other hand, in their project developed with the A I Hiphen Labs in partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists, produce works on the negative consequences of melting glaciers, which include rising seas, global warming and the melting of the cryosphere. They also offer interaction and engagement with practices that several environmental associations devote to sustainability.

In his MRI of the Earth, Turkish artist Refik Anadol uses machine learning to process 69 million images of the Earth from satellites analysing data on CO2, population and temperature. The artist also says that users can consult 200 million images of our natural heritage.

Then there is Dutch artist Dan Rosegaard, a member of the New Deutch Digital Design group, who creates sustainable interactive social works – schoonheid - (meaning ‘beautiful and clean’ in Dutch). For example, the Van Gogh Path, a cycle path that reproduces Van Gogh's painting “Starry Night”, aimed at regenerating the Nuenen neighbourhood in the Netherlands, or the Smog Free Project, a series of urban innovations to reduce pollution currently in China, the Netherlands, and Poland.

Are NFTs sustainable?

The debate on the ecological and digital transition and related best practices has also involved NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), one of the hottest topics of the moment – which we have also dealt with in a past article - mainly due to wasted energy involved in creating and selling NFTs, which use blockchain technology for tokens and require a lot of energy to create.

It is an urgent issue linked to energy, raised by digital artist Memo Akten in 2020. His blog says that a single ETH (Ethereum cryptocurrency) transfer needs on average about 35kWh: equivalent to the electricity consumption of an EU citizen over four days.

The issue is therefore not primarily economic, but environmental, as NFT works increase energy consumption exponentially. For example, creating a work of art run by 1500 NFTs ends up consuming 160 tonnes of CO2 in about 6 months, which is not environmentally sustainable.  

A cura di Giacinto Di Pietrantonio 


Giacinto Di Pietrantonio

Art-addicted curator

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