This general question is the common thread of this new section, which seeks to understand and reduce these impacts. To start with, they are distributed throughout the ‘life cycle’ of an artwork – from design to production, then when it is being exhibited, conserved, and if there is one, at its end-of-life. Only an overview can identify where the main impacts originate from.

An artwork frequently exhibited and shipped by road or air will generate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to this transportation, therefore contributing to global warming, which also damages biodiversity, including forests.
Reference: a Paris-Tokyo 13,000km flight by one person can generate all the emissions for a year from the same person with their private car.

A glass artwork belonging to a permanent exhibition in a museum also contributes to global warming; in this case because of the energy used to make the glass.
Reference: the long life cycle of certain objects, whose main impacts occur when they are being created, makes it possible to absorb these negative effects. Recovering and re-using resources at their end-of-life thus avoids depleting fresh resources. For glass (which can last 3,000 years) this is a win-win situation.

Artworks may release chemical substances into the indoor air (e.g. from solvents or thinners, etc.) that can intoxicate people living in proximity, as well as the artists who handled them in their studios. Here the effect comes from ecotoxicity, which puts human health at risk.
An artwork exhibited outdoors may have a coating that emits toxic chemicals due to rainwater runoff. These products can flow into rivers and contaminate the water, with negative consequences for both ecosystems, and, over the long term, human health.
Reference: a few milligrammes of toxic substances can pollute tens of thousands of litres of water. Treatment plants have trouble tackling micropollutants… which are thereafter found in the drinking water of cities which follow the one where the work is exhibited.

As you can see, impacts differ from one artwork to another and are distributed differently throughout their life cycles, yet have in common the fact they are generated by factors external to the artwork itself.
Reference: given these scenarios, it’s clear that shipping artworks doesn’t necessarily create the biggest effects. Indeed, during the life cycles of many everyday consumer products, transporting them generally only represents 10% of their overall impact. So the negative impacts on the environment will only significantly increase if the artwork in question travels frequently and far.

What about digital? With COVID-19 having considerably accelerated the use of this technology, a whole set of impacts produced by the entire digital system are now at stake: whether they be energy consumption or the use of rare earth metals. One thing is for sure, a digital artwork does not necessarily have less impact than a physical one.

Now suppose an artwork that, while having negative effects on the environment, like any other products, also raises ecological awareness among its audience that leads to reduced impacts…. Here the sum of positive influences could be greater than the negative ones!
Reference: the immaterial nature of the environmental effects of artworks is a new field of cultural studies. When considering the issue as a whole, this sociological perspective is just as important as precise figures from case studies.

Impacts can be reduced by the artist’s design choices. When he or she takes environmental impacts into consideration along the entire life cycle of the artwork, we can say it is eco-designed.

Eco-design is an approach based on good practice standards, starting with ISO 14044 on Life Cycle Assessment, supported by environmental databases, especially quantification of effects on resources, water, soil… and more broadly on biodiversity, especially humans.

Find out more about eco-design in the next issue of Impact Art News!

Alice Audouin and Philippe Osset (founder of Solinenn)

Photo: Journées des métiers d’art

Find all the articles from Impact Art News n°20 – June 2020