Talk Slow

““Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” Interview with Artist Rita Süveges

 Many scientists agree that the pandemic gives a new opportunity for humankind to lead a slower and more sustainable lifestyle. Do you agree? If not, what are your thoughts on the subject? 

To quote Milton Friedman, Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. The crisis bears within itself a number of unexpected outcomes, and the winning scenario greatly depends on the spirit in which the authorities exercise control over our lives. Is the goal to help those in need and thus create a fairer, more equal and a more sustainable society? The crisis legitimates the state to grow, and authorise itself to issue special rules and regulations. However, if the government does not use them to implement equalization policies, but to enforce exclusionist, corrupt and exploitative actions, then we cannot really hope that the poorer half of the country may stand a chance to get closer to living a worthy human life, in which the need for a slower, more sustainable lifestyle may arise. 

Lifestyle itself seems to be a matter of personal choice, an environment-conscious life being seemingly available for everyone. Still, a number of circumstances take part in the fact that for the end-consumer, the less environmentally friendly option is the cheaper, or at least the more comfortable one. One should not forget that it was capitalism that made us consumers, and its aim is to keep us in that state – and I’m not talking merely about luxury products. Our socio-cultural existence and sense of identity are based on our consumer attitudes – this is true even if we are trying to lead a more environmentally conscious lifestyle: we are avid market-goers, we collect waste selectively, do yoga, resist turning on the air-conditioner, or havent drunk a coke in about five years anyway. 

The most forms of being out in nature are invasive too, in accordance with our other consumer habits and activities – be it skiing, the pollution that comes as the traffic side effect of reaching our tropical holiday destinations, or the deceitful reserves shown by our tourist snaps. 

Will governments save the flight companies that go bankrupt? Those flight companies that – due to current reduced taxes – take millions of tourists from one point of the world to another (often to admire far away, exotic natural sights) via the cheapest, but most polluting way? Is it my responsibility as an individual to recognise that I am not entitled to cheap flights for example, even though my ecological footprint is ridiculously way below that of any local or international centre? When will these centres realize that their wealth – which allows them to commit to a sustainable, slow lifestyle – depends on cheap outsourced labour force, externalities and us? 

On a global level, although change would be possible, we are not doing great with our governments in a structural sense. On a personal level, it is hardly expectable from someone in today’s info-communication, mediatised society to leave the paved, neoliberal path of consumerism leading to happiness for a riskier and more uncomfortable junction – with an unknown ending; and to do this mostly alone, swimming against the current.  

Obligatory isolation has changed the way we communicate. This process may have advantages in the long run, however, it may also lead to the development of bad practices. In one of Asimov’s novels the inhabitants of a planet only communicate with each other through teleconferences (referred to as viewing in the book), since they find the idea of face-to-face interaction unbearable due to viruses and bacteria (among others). Communication is only one example of major change – in general, shall we hope for a better or worse future?  

As global supply chains are faltering, some industries have come to a halt altogether. Their restart powered by new investments may take them towards a more environmentally conscious direction (if considered profitable enough by the capital). In the future, economic operators may put forward local aspects more to decrease their dependence on global suppliers (i.e. not to favour local economy, but to serve their well-recognised self-interest). 

In most parts of the planet, the decrease of air pollution is clearly visible at the moment, and electric energy consumption in Hungary alone has decreased by 30%. However, nature’s momentary relief of extreme strain has only been possible through production halt, which resulted in millions of people losing their means of livelihood. 

Many must keep going to work during the pandemic, risking not just their own health but that of their environment too – in order to enable the continuous operation of public services, food and other supply systems, and keep our lives confined within four walls remain safe and comfortable. 

In the meantime, the climate crisis stays a real threat, hugely eliminated from public awareness by the pandemic. Amid the future economic depression, I wonder who will have the intention of redesigning the operation of our lives and that of society in a way that motivates us to give things up instead of pursuing our usual level of comfort. 

Having Google Earth is not enough anymore – our planet is now being rebuilt in Minecraft (rivers and buildings included), and it all will be available to us. In my opinion, the more we lock ourselves up in our own world (in either real or virtual communities), the less chance we have to see anything outside of it. Solidarity actions may bring us closer to those living in our immediate environment – be it the elderly neighbours for whom we do the shopping or the poplar trees in the park that we pass by while taking our constitutional walks. However, in the long run, isolation only separates us even more from the social groups and environmental processes that we encounter at our workplace, our community, our living space – thus outside our comfort zones. This makes being emphatic with them even more difficult, even though that would serve as the basis of social solidarity and environmental consciousness. 

In my personal life, I take communication shifting online really badly as well. LuckilyI share my home with my partner, and for me, the lockdown situation is privileged in a sense that we may slow down and spend our time in ways we previously didn’t. 

What I find concerning is that the digital surveillance systems tested during this crisis may be transformed for further use in an unnoticed manner – location tracking for example, face recognition, different databases about our risk level to infect others, and various other things beyond my scope. 

It is hopeful that all that time spent in home office will make invisible housework visible in the future. Maybe supply systems taken for granted – i.e. healthcare, education or food – will gain a better appreciation after we are all faced with partly having to do their jobs ourselves. 

 Exhibitors of Slow Life  Radical Practices of the Everyday examine both social and economic reasons of the climate and ecological crisis and their possible solutions from different viewpoints. Why did you choose this subject matter for your artwork?  

Nature has always been my main subject. I grew up in the country, in a house with a garden. As children, we played outside all the time and I spent hours observing weeds, insects, worms, our walnut tree, frogs, and crows and sparrows amid bamboo (in a Gerald Durrell manner). We lived with the changing seasons, and peas and apricots and violets grew in our garden. Once, my parents even enrolled me in an environmental summer day camp, organised by the local forestry. 

Although I have been living in the city for over 15 years, enjoying all the advantages – since my communities of friends and professionals are all here, and a variety of cultural programmes are available – I still cannot help but idealise the experiences I went through as a child. 

For this reason, my art soon turned towards the aim to recreate the natural experience, and gained a critical voice during my period of self-education: I research the roots of the separation of nature and culture, and the effects of this worldview to this day – the current climate and ecological crisis is the tip of this iceberg.  

My series out of control focuses on the states and participants of slow and fast carbon cycles. Carbon – the basis of life on Earth, one of its protagonists so to say – is in the state of constant change: by creating compounds with other elements it transforms between the states of living and non-living, solid, liquid or gas states. For us, the time spans of these coal cycles are incomprehensible, but the planet does not mind whether it is inhabited by advanced human or plankton societies. 

Most rocks for example were formed from calcareous remains of once living organisms (limestone), and crude oil was composed of sedimented layers of micro marine creatures, plankton and foraminifera over millions of years. 

By extracting and burning hydrocarbons, carbon joins the fast cycle – the natural elements of which also include the carbon dioxide emitted during photosynthesis and volcano eruptions. Disruption of the carbon cycle dynamics affects global climate balance as well, since the carbon dioxide level of the atmosphere functions as a climate regulating effect. 

The energy surplus of coal, oil and natural gas made the lifestyle of modern societies possible. During the last century, the major driving force of this lifestyle has become the ideology of never-ending acceleration, development and accumulation. We have started to deplete energy and natural resources accumulated in the ecosystem in the past hundreds of millions of years at a horrifying concentration and speed. The Earth has tremendous resources of fossil fuels, and instead of fearing their exhaustion, mankind should rather fear the extinction of its own living conditions due to burning them. 

We cannot disrupt these natural cycles anymore, since the consequences are unforeseeable: together with climate change, extinction of species, vanishing of forests, floods, hurricanes and an ecological catastrophe may await not only nature, but us, human societies as well.