Bio Troja and Encountering a Fox. Nature in the Cities Miloš Vojtěchovský

The question has come up again and again since last March: are culture and contemporary art indispensable in our lives and in our society? Maybe it won’t hurt us to do without them? Or in other words: in what form will culture change during a (hopefully temporary) deprivation of social contact?

Fooling around Troja Château: Ondřej Smeykal, Petr Nikl, 2020
Fooling around Troja Château: Ondřej Smeykal, Petr Nikl, 2020
Fooling around Troja Château: Ondřej Smeykal, Petr Nikl, 2020
Fooling around Troja Château: Ondřej Smeykal, Petr Nikl, 2020
Fooling around Troja Château: Ondřej Smeykal, Petr Nikl, 2020
Fooling around Troja Château: Ondřej Smeykal, Petr Nikl, 2020

Miloš Vojtěchovský works as a curator, art historian, audiovisual artist, critic, teacher and publisher in the area of electronic media and experimental music. He has founded and led a number of platforms that expanded the possibilities in the area of new media. He used to lead the Hermit Foundation and its residential stays in the Plasy monastery, he worked in the Jelení Gallery and in the Školská 28 Gallery. He participated in the foundation of the Internet audio archive Sounds of Prague. He established the FAMU’s CAS (Centre for Audiovisual Studies) and was at the origin of The Institute of Intermedia (IIM) Prague, a platform of the Czech Technical University and the Academy of Fine Arts. He is one of the initiators of the Frontiers of Solitude concept and program. He participates in the leadership of the aforementioned project Bio Troja: A Place for Composting Culture.

Have culture and art really become homeless because their establishments remain closed and culture and art have moved from protected and secure institutions such as museums, galleries, theatres, concert halls, cinemas, libraries and churches to privacy, electronic networks and the pages of books?

Cultural habits and pleasures we associate with the consumption of cultural goods have been included in the list of hygienically risky activities. Mass watching of pictures, films, music and theatre potentially threatens the survival of at least part of the community. Unlike shopping in supermarkets and other shops, going to a gallery or theatre is not “vitally important”. Pandemics put culture and art under threat, and this logically evokes the uncomfortable feeling that everything we have been accustomed to so far, what we “liked”, what we “are entitled to” suddenly turns out to be temporary, like ephemeral illusions of cultural satiety and prosperity. We can hardly compensate for the hibernation of contact cultural institutions by watching films on Netflix all day, listening to virtual music via Spotify, attending online concerts via Zoom or chatting with artists via Facebook. Could the  tragic  encounter  with an unpredictable mutating virus possibly become an opportunity to revise more passive, comfortable, and consumer ideas about what art is? Will the pandemic bring efforts to interconnect culture more firmly to our lives to make it more sustainable and less fragile? Not over-dependent on technologies, money supply and institutional support?

The Wilderness in the Cities

During 2020, hundreds of photographs and videos of wild animals began to appear in the media. They were wandering the suddenly deserted streets  of  European,  American and Asian cities. Whereas, in the pre-corona period, either machines or humans used to dominate physically, visually and acoustically on a 24/7 basis, along with the animals, an image of the world of which we have only been a small part for millennia appeared on the horizon. A world that we assumed flickered mainly on computer monitors or in zoological gardens or far away in the nature reserves of exotic colonised countries. This relentless expulsion, the eradication of nature from the city (and the city is, metaphorically speaking, today, the dominant factor of most of the planet’s surface) has been pointed out for more than a century by urbanists, environmentalists, philosophers,  natural  scientists and sociologists. And sometimes also environmental activists and artists.

Alan Sonfist’s visionary Time Landscape project originated in 1968, as popular institutional criticism of the public monument genre. Sonfist managed to  complete  the  project only ten years later: on a small plot of land he was provided with on the corner of Manhattan’s LaGuardia Place and Houston Street, he planted the original flora and trees that grew there before the European colonisation of the continent. The fenced-off green monument is still growing today, even though this area represents vast financial capital. While most monuments in the form of statues in cities are a symbolic celebration of often rather dark historical personalities, Time Landscape in Midtown Manhattan is an oasis of a microbotanical garden and refers to a time when it was still a space of animals, plants, mushrooms and people, which was liberated by Europeans in favour of stone, pipes, concrete and cars.

In 1972, Gordon Matta-Clark  decided  to buy small parcels of land in the slum area of Queens from the city and from private individuals. It was an area that was of no use for investors and therefore uninteresting. Prices ranged from USD 25 to USD 50. These were symbolic interventions into a class-ridden empire, we follow a lonely beast watched by the portraits of dozens of representatives of the colonial superpower. It may occur to viewers that for centuries in Britain, a source of joy for those of the social status of most of those portrayed has been the ritual and cruel hunting of foxes.

Fooling around Troja Château: Ondřej Smeykal, Petr Nikl, 2020

Bio in Troja

The Troja Chateau complex offers an almost ideal context for the establishment of a new project focused on the overlap, parallels and interconnection between contemporary art and ecology. The landscape context is formed by the neighbouring Zoological and Botanical Gardens, as well as the “Wild Vltava” natural reserve. The Troja Basin is one of the largest and most valuable natural areas in the capital. And it is on the premises of the Troja Chateau that we have decided to implement a new GHMP project called Bio Troja.

It offers the possibility of an organizational and social platform for cooperation with other organizations and individuals, with artists, experts in the fields of ecology, natural sciences and other naturally related disciplines, as well as with non-experts. In 2021, the programme for the multifunctional space will be launched: the relatively modest space combines the functions of an information centre, gallery, study room, lecture hall and laboratory. The centre provides a setting for discussions of theoretical as well as practical visions and solutions that resonate in broader social and cultural contexts. Bio Troja offers an opportunity to reflect on how contemporary art can contribute to solutions for the current environmental crisis.

Bio Troja: A course for beginning beekeepers, Troja Château Gardens

Nature’s Lament and the Constitution of the Earth

In his book The Cry of Nature – Art and the Making of Animal Rights, art historian Stephen F. Eisenman summarises dozens of examples of visual artists who, since the beginning of modernity, have pointed to the non-obviousness, unsustainability and moral dubiousness of “humanism”. Humanism has become a symptom of the human sense of superiority over others, an expression of domination not only over non-European nations but also over animal and, more generally, natural entities which we became used to calling, in a Cartesian manner, things and objects. It is also worth recalling that we do not hear similar ideas only  from the  left or  activist wing as an attack on the noble traditions of capitalism, liberalism, the free market and other “democratic” values. One of the more serious voices of contemporary Czech philosophy, Josef Šmajs, the author of the paper A Constitution for the Earth, describes our situation as probably the last chance to revise the anti-nature, predatory ideologies of gross domestic product, growth, colonisation and looting of the environment. In his book Pes je zakopán v ontologii (The Dog is Buried in Ontology, Coprint, 2020), Professor Šmajs writes: “The cardinal issue is that man as a species is homogeneous only within the natural order. Therein lies the danger and hope: culture is an artificial structure built from matter and energy alienated from the Earth, but it is foreign to man and the biosphere. The current cultural order could get closer to nature and, with an informed human will, could be transformed biophilically. But time is fighting against us. We have almost conquered and occupied the planet.”

Maybe the unpleasant, chilling feeling caused by the threat to our visions of a peaceful, bucolic future will finally force us to react. We may have to push through changes that are far from being located only in personal responsibility, temperance, composting and disciplined sorting of household waste. We will have to arrive at a painful transformation of the overall set-up of society and the community, both locally and globally. Changes must start with thinking about education,  production,  mobility, consumption, ideology, economics and religion. Of course, they also concern culture, art and entertainment. We will probably not bestir ourselves to such a fundamental change voluntarily but will be – as they say – “forced to it by circumstances”.

A celebrity of the western art world, the director of the Serpentine Gallery in London and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, issued a public statement last February saying that ecology will now play a central role in his curatorial programme and that he was radically reducing his favourite activity, flying around the world. The federal cultural foundation, Kulturstiftung des Bundes, supports the new pilot project Klimabilanzen in Kulturinstitutionen: Auf dem Weg zur Klimaneutralität im Kulturbereich thanks to which German museums, galleries, theatres, concert halls and monuments are committed to making their carbon footprint and waste management more important in their production than before. These include for example Deutsches Nationaltheatre Weimar, Gedenkstätte Sachsenhausen, Kunsthalle Rostock and Zentrum für Kunst und Medien in Karlsruhe. In the last of the above institutions, it is clear that the carbon footprint of ZKM must be gigantic and that, even though it is a museum opened only in 1995, it is a relic from a bygone era.

In the last ten years, a number of “environmentally conscious” exhibitions and art projects emerged as a strategic response to grant criteria. However, it is probable that the reality is already slowly diverging from such an approach. Part of the Bio Troja project is a series of discussions on these somewhat unpopular issues in which other organisations from Prague and abroad will participate.


The Policy of a Return to Nature

Sometimes it seems that the chances for a sustainable future are really being worked on. On 15 October 2020, the Senate of the Czech Republic approved a resolution in support of the EU strategy in the field of biological diversity until 2030, the so-called Bringing Nature Back into our Lives. The European Commission’s strategy paper means a real elaboration of the European Green Deal. Among its basic objectives are:

  • legally protect at least 30% of the EU’s land area and 30% of its sea area
  • strictly protect at least 30% of the EU’s protected areas
  • reverse the decline in pollinators
  • reduce the risk and use of chemical pesticides by 50% manage at least 25% of agricultural land in the EU
  • restore at least 25,000 km of free-flowing rivers
  • maintain fishery resources and protect marine ecosystems