Is a Holocaust documentary environmental art?


Tribeca Film Festival eco shorts only loosely relate to the environment


By Tobin Hack



If you’re looking for the next Inconvenient Truth, don’t look to New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival this year. Sure, the renowned festival is screening five shorts under the umbrella title Environmental Rupture. But with a name like that, you might expect to view films that focus on practices and processes that are harming ecosystems, like climate change, mountain top removal, or coral reefs dying.  Instead, you’ll see a photo essay on Hiroshima; a 94-second abstract the creator said was inspired by polar ice caps; a 24-minute look at abandoned homes and lurking alligators near Florida’s Kennedy Space Center; a fascinating, trippy visual experiment with water and “states of mind”; and a black-and-white documentary-esque film about a Holocaust survivor and the Dusseldorf train station where her terrible journey began.

True, the atomic bomb was devastating for people and the environment, and images of prehistoric gators basking in the sun beside space rocket launch pads illustrate the resiliency of nature. And the Holocaust could not have happened without trains and all the other trappings of industrialization. But if we define ‘environmental art’ so loosely, couldn’t nearly every work of art ever produced fall into the category? What does environmental even mean?

All this is not to say that the five shorts didn’t get me thinking about tough, complicated issues to do with nature and our dysfunctional relationship with the natural world. They did. Launch contrasted footage of Florida hurricanes, lurking alligators, and terrifyingly powerful rocket ships at blastoff, all in a provocative way that begged the question: should we be more afraid of our natural environment, or of the one we ourselves have created? Number One’s digitally manipulated footage of fire, falling rocks, and rippling water called to mind my most pure childhood memories of idle hours spent outdoors, and made me wonder why so few adults take time for nature.                                                        

Maybe this disconnect between people and nature is what the festival organizers had in mind when they titled the series “environmental rupture.” But if I hadn’t gone into the screening wanting, expecting, being paid to mull over these environmental themes as I watched, I could just as easily have come away contemplating why people kill, go to war, build things, take photographs, prefer symmetry to asymmetry, and create art in the first place.

Maybe Tribeca put the series together because the environment is such a hot topic these days. Maybe it was genuine passion that compelled them to broach the topic. Maybe I should shut up and hope that when uber arty eco-short films hit the quasi-mainstream, it just means the green movement has really taken hold. But sitting in the dark theater, watching 94 seconds of impossibly abstract polar-ice-cap-inspired images flash before me (read: a rapid succession of flickering, brightly colored objects), I couldn’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t perhaps be a bit more discerning about how we apply the term “environmental art.” Doesn’t a consumer market forfeit its power for change when it greenwashes every product under the sun, and lose consumer trust in the process? By the same token, doesn’t the art world forfeit its power for change when it hands this new hot label out so casually?

The last screening of Environmental Rupture runs Saturday, May 3, at 9pm, at Village East Cinema, 189 2nd Ave.

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