Machines of Deceleration [1]

Vanina Saracino


Photo: Lea Vene

Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, was built at the end of the 19th century to begin the extractive operations of iron ore in what later became one of the largest mines in the world. More recently, the city has become widely known to be “on the move”—dozens of houses were carried two miles away from its center, which is collapsing because of the sucking force of the mine. I remember walking at night across an empty, sunken park that had once been the center of the city, and being shamefully fascinated by the whole view. The mountain of extractive debris was illuminated by rows of yellow lights, hovering over an industrial site the size of a city, made out of metal tubes and cables and more lights—a view appealing to our sci-fi imagery. In the streets, I noticed the absence of protest, which was surprising given the temporary existence of the city and its extractive purpose: there were no graffiti, no posters, no visual traces of resistance except for a red sticker with the dry question “Kiruna is dead?” glued on a trash bin. I inquired about the reasons for this absence of resistance to the public employee who gave us a tour. Raising one eyebrow, he replied “you don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. 

This brought me to reflect on the fact that art engaging with ecology and climate justice, close to practices of resistance and activism, is, on the contrary, often attempting to bite the hand that feeds (namely funds) artistic production and exhibition, although the ambiguities that arise are sometimes too rapidly dismissed. As a curator focusing on ecology, I would like to address some of these ambiguities while highlighting the possibilities of moving image as a medium for art practices committed to climate justice. On the one hand, I will consider the potential of the screen to become a machine of deceleration—as opposed to acceleration as the predominant temporality of growth and progress in technocapitalism. On the other, I will reflect upon the inherent possibilities of the medium to create multiple strategies of visibility—as opposed to the practices of concealment perpetuated by extractive capitalism and climate deniers, but also by green capitalism and white environmentalism. 

Undoubtedly, art and activism share an inherent transformative force, both in their primordial aim and material potential. However, while activism mostly relies on the free time and unpaid effort of voluntary workers, artists and curators’ pursuit of social change (even when labeled as cheap labor) is tied to a professional obligation with multiple aims, including that of pursuing the next commission, exhibition or round of funding. As pointed out by Boris Groys[2]  among others, this double-sided pursuit gives rise to theoretical, political and even purely practical problems. According to Groys, the “quasi-ontological” uselessness of art would “infect” art activism and doom it to failure.

Could we then imagine to find a “use” for moving image aimed at mobilizing climate justice and what would it be? Can we engage more voices in the struggle against climate breakdown by showing these works outside the relatively safe space of the art institution? Oliver Ressler’s fight-specific[3] video work is an ideal example of an alternative dissemination of the art, as it aims at transcending a purely artistic purpose to contribute substantially to environmental activism. His series “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart” (2016–ongoing) closely follows the struggles against a fossil fuel-dependent economy and constitutes an alternative image archive for activists, that circulates across different platforms and spaces beyond the strictly artistic ones. Ressler allegedly eludes some internal rules of the video art market and distribution by freely disseminating his work on the Internet instead of restricting access to it. Granting free and unlimited accessibility to the work is a necessary condition to avoid deactivating its inherent activist mandate. 

Today, a growing number of artists are taking part in the struggle toward climate justice and aiming to elaborate new strategies of visibility in order to inform, to create awareness, to mobilize. Finding new strategies of revelation is a crucial task, at present, to counterbalance the politics of concealment operated by extractive capitalism. While curating the Screen City Biennial in Stavanger, where the headquarters of the Norwegian oil business is located, I did not notice visual indicators of the massive extractive operations, except that of an equally massive inflow of capital. A small portion of this profit funds the visual arts, in a cycle where oil extraction indirectly enables artistic strategies that make visible what the extractive operations—and the logic behind them—conceal in the first place.

Moving image art intertwined with environmental activism can help to subvert the politics of invisibility perpetuated by extractive capitalism. By revealing what is usually concealed, it can contribute with its specific language to shorten up the enormous distance that separates us, as consumers, from witnessing the production process of almost everything we purchase and that provokes climate imbalance—clearly, a distance that deactivates our empathy and agency[4] . Thanks to the inherent narrative possibilities of the medium, the easy circulation of videos and its relatively simple accessibility as compared to other forms of art, it can become a tool to support the ecological struggle by growing into a call to action. 

Could it be argued that, at present, moving image is not only employed as an artistic medium but also as a tool to reconfigure individual agency and resistance? What would then be required in terms of exhibition, experience and diffusion of the work for it to operate as such?

On the one hand, I want to stress the importance of public spaces, including the Internet, for the exhibition of video artworks committed to climate justice, with the aim to reach a wider range of individuals with diverse worldviews and interests—especially those who would not enter the space of an art museum. In fact, being in dialogue with someone who has similar views as we do, in the space of the museum but also in our social (and social media) network, impairs a broader diffusion of ideas and stories that would shift our perspective—we risk being enveloped in an epistemic bubble[5]. This general absence of confrontation (which on the contrary is at the basis of activism) when exhibiting in art institutions, encounters the risks of deactivating part of the inherent initial intentions of the work, namely that of engaging who hasn’t been engaged already. 

On the other hand, I propose to think of the screen, including the projected surface and the experiences of expanded cinema, as a space of deceleration that brakes the velocity of technocapitalism, symbolically but also practically. Extractive capitalism is not only a predatory practice based on the extraction of profit: it is also a logic of contemporaneity that has an effect on our experience of art and its production. A logic that is deeply intertwined with a temporality of constant acceleration. But if extractivism is a logic, can we avoid it within our own art practice? Are there effective ways to counter the accelerative pull in the experience of art, and would these be less extractivist?

No machine has ever been invented to go slower, as Paul Virilio[6]  often reminded us, and even art is deeply affected by the acceleration and the related anxiety this hectic temporality generates. However, in the case of moving image including expanded cinema experience, I would argue that something different is at play, as the medium is chosen along the basic assumption and inherent expectation of a viewer who will take time to watch it—the essence of being time-based. I believe that spaces that invite the viewers to stay, to decelerate, are potentially more successful in creating engagement and mobilization, and therefore that deceleration can be considered a form of resistance against the accelerative temporality of technocapitalism.

When debuting his work Tidal Pulse (2018–ongoing) in Harstad, Enrique Ramírez took over a scheduled ferry journey allowing for the roles of visitors and travelers to exchange organically. Tidal Pulse, a site-responsive sound piece and boat journey of the duration of three hours approximately, could only be experienced as an all-or-nothing work, and the experience was aimed to be cinematic but without the employment of moving image. The sound of the work includes interviews with employees in the oil business, environmental activists and Sami people on our ecological present and future, and it is mixed with live-recordings of the vibrations of the boat, approached here as a fuel-powered organ that symbolically reflects on its own polluting duties[7]. In Beacon (2019), Saara Ekström choreographs an expanded cinema performance employing micro projectors along the harbor of Stavanger. In unexpected encounters, passers-by engage into a visual survey of endangered animal and vegetal species of the Finnish archipelago filmed on 8mm and projected onto organic and inorganic surfaces

Tidal Pulse and Beacon create poetic, participatory spaces of deceleration and resistance. 

Movie theatres are also ideal venues to display films and video artworks engaging with ecological struggles—despite too often being dismissively associated with low-brow cultural forms within the art field. Here, the decelerating force of the black box is developed one step further, with a clearly timed beginning/end that hinders the temptation of a hurried experience of the work, softly forcing us to counteract the acceleration at play outside the black box. This operation, I would argue speculatively, is in its essence closer to the strategies of degrowth that should be collectively reinforced in order to change our accelerative attitude and extractive logic—possibly a material practice aiming to react to the all-encompassing Fisherian capitalist realism[8] . Moreover, the generally demanding experience of video art in a movie theatre partially strips away the VIP and HNWI networking logics of the art world, its internal strategies of exclusion based on capital and power. It tentatively eliminates the possibility of rushing in and out and that of catching a superficial glimpse of the work—also potentially extractive practices.[9]

In conclusion, pursuing activist goals through art is a challenge that must be faced with consciousness of certain internal contradictions and limits of the field, by addressing and disassembling them as a starting point to operate more effectively. As artists, curators and cultural producers we can reinforce the activist aim of contemporary artworks against the current climate breakdown by framing experiences that engage a wider number of viewers and participants through channels other than the traditional art institution, but also by considerably reducing the waste and contamination we generate while at work.
Art that has more chances to have an effective political impact is one that strives to exit its own epistemic bubble, with the aim to find a use for the strategies of visibilization it engenders. Creating machines of deceleration is a way to resist the acceleration inherent to extractive capitalism by creating spaces that do not let this extractive logic affect our experience of art. Framed as such, moving image can contribute to expand the awareness and reconfigure our individual and collective agency towards climate justice.

August 2019

Thanks to T. J. Demos, Marten Esko, Bernd Förster, Helene Romakin, Cristina Valero and Lea Vene for the inputs and brainstorming.



[1] This text has been written for the publication Barricading the Ice Sheets – Artists and Climate Action in the Age of Irreversible Decision, Oliver Ressler (ed.), Graz: Edition Camera Austria, 2020.

[2] Boris Groys, On Art Activism, E-Flux Journal #56, June 2014.

[3] The term has been coined by Bert Theis and it is first used to refer to Ressler’s work in Sylvie Fortin, “Fight-specificity: a conversation with Oliver Ressler” in Glenn Harper, Twylene Moyer (eds.), Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works / NewTerritories / New Publics, 2013.

[4] In the particular case of climate change, this distance is broadened by false promises of homogenic rescue of the increasingly heated planet through geoengineering – a business opportunity largely supported by climate change deniers. See T.J. Demos, To Save a World: Geoengineering, Conflictual Futurisms, and the Unthinkable, E-Flux Journal #94, October 2018.

[5] The expression is in C. Thi Nguyen, Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles, Episteme, Cambridge University Press, 2018.

[6] Paul Virilio, Lost Dimension, Semiotext(e), 2012.

[7] In Harstad, the work took place on a ferry for local transportation on a regularly scheduled journey, aiming at occupying an existing route instead of framing a separate experience for it.

[8] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, 2009

[9] Moreover, employing movie theatres more often, as delocalized venues of museums, would avoid the construction of disposable black-boxes, certainly an ambiguous choice when exhibiting works addressing climate breakdown, because of the waste it produces.



VANINA SARACINO is an independent curator and film programmer currently based in Berlin. In 2015, she co-founded OLHO, an international project about contemporary art and cinema, initiated in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, also shown at the Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi (2017) and Palais de Tokyo (2018). From 2013 to 2017 she curated monthly selections of artists’ video works on the experimental channel ikonoTV, additionally she has been incharge of collaborations with museums and artist run spaces worldwide. Among these, in 2015 she initiated Art Speaks Out, a yearly exhibition project on ecology also shown at the Istanbul Modern Museum (2015) and within the Marrakech Climate Change Conference (COP 22, 2016). Other projects include The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel (in collaboration with CCA, Tallinn, 2019); Tidal Pulse by Enrique Ramírez (AMIFF, Harstad, Norway, 2018); Earthrise (EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam, 2018); Fragmented Vision (Musrara Mix Festival, Jerusalem, 2018); Earthly Mutations: Films From the Near Future (Salzburger Kunstverein, Austria, 2018); The Crisis of the Horizon (Small Projects, Tromsø, Norway, 2018); Lost Dimension (AMIFF, Harstad, Norway, 2017); The Impossibility of an Island (within TBA21 Open Ocean Space x COP23, Kunstmuseum Bonn and Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art, Gdansk, Poland, 2017). She is a member of IKT, International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art.