Enfolding systems: the dissipation of Spaceship Earth

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


This paper considers art’s engagement with the socio-ecological systems in operation in the world. Drawing from both environmental and art history, the paper employs the Deleuzean concept of the fold to suggest three overlapping periods of ecological systems awareness within culture. The paper demonstrates how we have shifted our attention from a material engagement with earth systems to a primary engagement with simulations of these systems.

The ‘Primary Systems’ fold, (1960-1980) witnessed the emergence of holistic systems thinking, in particular the concepts of the ecosystem, Gaia and Spaceship Earth. These ideas were demonstrated in the ecosystem-simulation sculptures of Hans Haacke, Allan Kaprow’s ‘environmental’ installations, and the earthworks of Robert Smithson. The ‘Open Systems’ fold (1981–2001) marked a shift from material transfer within systems to information transfer, and a period of openness and reflexivity. Culture experienced an openness during this period that technology and information afforded. Meanwhile, the shift to information was demonstrated in science with the turn towards the gene and within culture, through the multiple textual reading of the artwork. Finally, the current ‘post-system’ condition (2002–present) marks the shift from critically engaging with simulations of Spaceship Earth to being enfolded within the hyperreality of the simulacrum. This shifts our intellectual, emotional and affective attention from information concerning the operations of Spaceship Earth to an algorithmic world, divorced from reality. The paper concludes by asserting that this shifts the role of the artist from systems communicator to systems disrupter.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 5 Apr 2019
Externally publishedYes
EventThe Association for Art History’s Annual Conference - University of Brighton, Brighton, United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Apr 20196 Apr 2019


ConferenceThe Association for Art History’s Annual Conference
Abbreviated title2019 Annual Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Ecological thinking
  • Systems art
  • Contemporary art


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