Back to Earth: interview with Lucia Pietroiusti

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

The Serpentine Galleries' Back to Earth is a new multi-year project that invites artists, architects, poets, filmmakers, scientists, thinkers and designers, to devise 'artist-led campaigns, protocols and initiatives responding to the environmental crisis.' Having migrated online under COVID, Kitty Grady asks curator of General Ecology Lucia Pietroiusti more about this ambitious exhibition, and the new shapes it is taking in recent months.

‘“I didn’t know these muscles existed” we say when we recognize the disappearance of California Mussels,’ says a woman’s voice, in soft, commercial American tones. ‘You are standing on Mussel beach, a place where before human muscles, there were mussels. Inhale… exhale… pose.’ 

This is an extract from ‘Mussel Beach,’ a 2019 artwork by London-based artist duo Cooking Sections. In the guise of an audio guide, the work takes the listener on a humorous tour of Muscle Beach in Venice, California. You find that, before the beach was overtaken by fitness-obsessed hardbodies and Spanish settlers before them, it was a vibrant breeding ground for mussels (of the mollusc variety) which provided an important food source for Indigenous Communities. 

Cooking Sections are one of many artists taking part in the Serpentine Gallery’s current project, ‘Back to Earth’, which aims to put ecological questions at the forefront of the gallery’s agenda. They’ve enlisted over 65 artists, creators and writers as well as numerous scientists and thinkers to create artworks that are also environmental campaigns. 

The project was a response to the gallery’s 50th anniversary this year, a temporal marker that the institution felt didn’t warrant a straightforward celebration. ‘There is so much grief and anxiety, particularly when it comes to the climate, and we thought it didn’t make sense to look back’ says Lucia Pietroiusti, curator of General Ecology at the Serpentine, who I speak to over Zoom. ‘We want to take responsibility for a certain number of years in the future, whether it’s human time: 50 years, or even non-human: 500 or 5,000 years.’

‘We want to take responsibility for a certain number of years in the future, whether it’s human time: 50 years, or even non-human: 500 or 5,000 years’

Back to Earth is the culmination of a long-term engagement in environmental issues. In 2018, Pietroiusti became the first curator dedicated to ecology at any contemporary art institution. Co-curated by the late Gustav Metzger, in 2014, the gallery chose ‘Extinction’ as the theme for their annual Marathon series. Metzger’s legacy as an environmental campaigner has been a strong influence on the Serpentine’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist’s decision to put ecology at the heart of the gallery’s practise. 

The COVID-19 pandemic means that the physical Back to Earth show that was meant to start this spring has been postponed to summer 2021. Fortunately, however, the project has been made widely accessible through an accompanying podcast, hosted by Pietroiusti and Victoria Sin, a Canadian artist. Chatting over the phone before introducing excerpts of artworks and interviews, the podcast has an informal, team-meeting quality. ‘It’s a way to diarise the thinking process - to open up the methods and ourselves back to forms of feedback’, Pietroiusti tells me. Well researched and full of big ideas, it resembles something like Radiolab in register. Brian Eno, who got involved in the project after deciding he didn’t want to put on a solo show, has provided the podcast’s ambient jingle. 

So far Olafur Eliasson, Judy Chicago and even Jane Fonda have launched campaigns with Back to Earth. Yet while Pietroiusti admits they were ‘good ones to kickstart interest,’ she seems more keen to talk to me about the involvement of lesser-known artists, whose work neatly illustrates the activist spirit intrinsic to the project, which, whilst ‘artist-driven’ sees itself as sitting firmly ‘in the middle of sociological and political questions.’

Based in the Northern Territory of Australia, The Karrabing Film Collective, a grassroots Indigenous media group, have been commissioned by The Serpentine to make work for the project. With a name meaning ‘low tide’ in the Emmiyengal language, their work explores the history and actuality of colonial violence against aboriginal communities in Australia and particularly the entangled ownership of the land. By involving the Aboriginal Area Protection Authority and the Perth ICA in the project, the aim is that the film will help to re-establish a community-led nature reserve in the territory. ‘The film itself is not the campaign,’ explains Pietroiusti. ‘It’s a spatial-transformation project. But what we are asking is how can art turn the key?’                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

An intersectional and decolonial approach is key to many of Back to Earth's projects. As a self-described, ‘queer magic apocalypse group’, artist Ayesha Tan Jones’s work explores alterntive ideas of ‘survivalism for a marginalized body’, whether that’s astrology, massage or magic. For The Serpentine, Tan Jones is focusing on the practise of singing with nature, ‘whether it’s with plants at home or out in the wilderness.’ Inspired by ancient druid choirs, they plan to sing at sacred sites (such as Glastonbury) and unsacred ones, (the HS2 rail line) in order to ‘restore the peace of the land’. Spiritualism, animism and paganism are not only belief systems that have been historically repressed and colonized, they are valuable for their privileged relation to sensing one’s environment. They can provide an important corrective to epistemological forms of knowledge, which are often more obfuscating than they are enlightening. 

A catechism of the Back to Earth project is the belief in art as a powerful tool of visualization, helping us to imagine new possible futures. ‘Technology now looks a lot like science fiction did 50 years ago. Art exists in the immediate and long term future as a worlding thing,’ says Pietroiusti. She believes art has a critical ‘job of making public understanding of science more of an aesthetic, embodied experience.’ For the project, the artist and writer James Bridle is focusing on how to make the ‘speed’ of climate change perceptible to human beings, mapping the physical movement of different biomes (currently about 0.4km per year). ‘I had a vision of these trees literally walking forwards… I want people to take a plant, pull them up and replant them,’ he explains on the podcast.It dramatizes the relationship of what this space means over time, the question of how we can move, and raises the question of creating safe spaces, corridors of movement to ensure the survival of certain species – like hedgehog tunnels at a larger scale.’  

'Technology now looks a lot like science fiction did 50 years ago. Art exists in the immediate and long term future as a worlding thing'

Alongside the podcast, the works commissioned by Back to Earth will eventually become available online. Pietroiusti says that this forced recourse to non-physical curation due to Covid-19 has ‘precipitated’ longer-term concerns of how to make art institutions greener. Writing in The Art Newspaper earlier this year, Hans-Ulrich Obrist – who The New Yorker reported in 2014 took 2,000 flights for work in 20 years – confirmed The Serpentine’s commitment to re-analysing the environmental impact of the gallery’s practise. ‘What is the ecological cost of shipping artworks for exhibitions? … Can we explore what might be called sustainable curation and develop new standards and practices?’ 

Although diversity statistics for The Serpentine are not currently available, the White Pube has prompted the Serpentine Galleries for such data and in the meantime the organisation's Communications Teams directed me towards an Anti-Racism Statement’ on their website, which expresses an institutional commitment to tackling racial injustice. Questions of race, colonialism, class and gender feature heavily and rightly in the artist campaigns commissioned by the galleries and Back to Earth specifically. Yet for the Serpentine to be truly progressive it must avoid diversity optics, systematically hiring BIPOC curators and directors, for Back to Earth as well as its exhibitions at large. 

Climate crisis is a kind of prolonged emergency and responses to it are simultaneously urgent, while taking time and effort to resolve. Although initially conceived as a year-long project, Back to Earth is now, Pietroiusti tells me, ‘something without end. It has become a kind of micro-institution within the institution’. The hope, however, is that this institutional change eventually becomes worldly: ‘We want to go out from the institution into the world at large, with the commitment that artists have an active role to play in the shaping of utopian, dystopian or even just semi-utopian futures’. 

Back to Earth is a free, digital exhibition available to access here. A physical version will be held at the Serpentine Galleries in 2021.

The latest podcast episode connected to the project, Standing with the Forest, platforms and supports the work of two Indigenous-led organisations working in Brazil, APIB and AMAAIAC. Visit for more.