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Altruistic art: Perhaps contemporary art forms can teach us a lot about how we ought to be treating ourselves and the environment around us.

Thursday 27 May 2010
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Our Future Planet picks up its paintbrush.

It’s really quite logical that Arts, Ecology and the Environment should mix naturally. After all, if Art is about taking stock of and depicting or interpreting the surrounding, changing environment, or even evaluating human impacts on it, then the match becomes even more apparent.

But how do these elements mix in the real world? And perhaps more importantly, are there any effects, drivers or results of artistic merit in terms of measurable sustainability metrics?

Of course, as with any question involving Art, the answers will be myriad, and tough to define. But on the very simplest level, it’s plain there are at least organisations out there which are looking at the issues from these perspectives.

The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts (CSPA) is a non profit arts infrastructure organisation. It works in collaboration with places like the LA Stage Alliance, University of Oregon, York University and the Royal Society of the Arts. The goal is to work ‘towards sustainability in the Arts, ecological and otherwise.’

In practical terms, this means the organisation runs events like ‘Undercurrents: Experimental Ecosystems in Recent Art.’ This particular exhibition looks at concepts surrounding ‘ethical cohabitation’. According to CSPA, this concerns ideas on ‘how to negotiate our differences within our shared environment. Cohabitation implies power relations in flux; relations that seem at first harmonious can in fact be antagonistic. In this context, how does one choose to act?’

To those outside the Arts world, this might sound somewhat perplexing, but in fact taking an artistic perspective on the necessary conflict between resource sharing, humanity, the needs of the planet and how we manage these dynamics is something that’s always been fundamental to sustainability.

Art attack

Other programmes developed by CSPA illustrate even more clearly what the organisation is getting at. In the week leading to May 29, 2010, CSPA is running an event on Aesth/Ethics in Environmental Change.

Again, a whole bunch of international partners are involved, including the European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment, Religious Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, the Biological Station of Hiddensee, Environmental Ethics and the University of Greifswald. So there’s consensus that something meaningful is going on.

This particular programme seeks answers to some of the most pressing sustainability issues of our time. ‘What does the perception and awareness of the environment and ourselves within it contribute to our understanding of and dealing with nature?’

‘How are worldviews, values, rituals, visions, belief systems and ideologies at work within the human ecology? How can humans in general encounter an accelerating and expanding environmental (incl. climatic) change?’

Elsewhere, an international Symposium on Sustainability and Contemporary Art took place at CEU Budapest between 19-20 March 2010. It appears much recent Art and Sustainability works surrounds ‘Post Fordism.’

As the name might suggest, the idea surrounds shifts away from mass production and industrialised systems towards more specialised or potentially localised production more in tune with resources. The alignment with sustainability is therefore pretty obvious to see.

Things like homeworking or the increase in the use of IT can all be placed broadly within this category. In terms of Art, it seems the CEU symposium hoped to ‘bring together artists, philosophers, environmental scientists and activists to explore capitalism’s ability to absorb criticism and adapt to new circumstances.’

Practical action

For those who find all this a little esoteric, there are some more concrete things happening. From January 2010, Chrysalis Arts has launched a Public Art Sustainability Assessment (PASA).

The idea is to help commissioning authorities, engineers or even artists themselves gain a better understanding of the fundamentals behind the real life sustainability of Art. There’s a certain double standard if we imagine a piece depicting pollution that uses toxic inks, and notches up serious fuel miles moving from location to location.

Of course, another more obvious function of Art might be to inspire better design for eco goods, more beautiful and functional renewable energy, or what’s known overall as ‘sustainable aesthetics.’

The point is maybe sustainability has become jaded, full of negative conurtations or depressing realities. Maybe Art can have a role in halting this decline.

The Royal College of Art (RCA) asks whether this is exactly the case, pondering the question in writings in its ‘Themes’ section: ‘Climate scientists must be despairing. It seems that society has mastered a collective shoulder shrug each time there is a new warning about the looming impact of climate change. The design sector needs to recognise its role and step up to the mark.’

This kind of thinking ultimately led three former RCA students to set up a consultancy, Three Trees Don’t Make a Forest. The idea seeks to inspire sustainable design that really works, moving towards a ‘zero-carbon design industry.’

It seems that there are two fairly distinct roles Art might play in sustainability. The first surrounds a more abstract, theoretical engagement with how we think about sustainability and how interactions and mindsets might be altered in order to better develop sustainable living and consciousness.

This can be combined with a more practical side that concentrates on how Art in the real world, aesthetics and design can make the most of their potential to give sustainability the best shot at real world success.

The truth is developing any meaningful metric to assess just what the benefits are, is nigh on impossible. But perhaps getting people thinking in the right way, and offering them beautiful, pleasurable alternatives to put sustainability to work in their daily lives is more important than we might imagine.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up  to Our Future Planet today!

Read more articles with reference to The Arts here 

Comments (1)Add Comment
Beth Carruthers
June 01, 2010
Votes: +0

Just last week I was a presenter at the Hiddensee colloquium on Aesth/Ethics in Environmental Change. For context, I am a curator and consultant in specifically the areas of Ecoart and Arts & Sustainability. I write, publish and lecture internationally on this and on the intersection of ethics and aesthetics.

It is important to note that the practice Ecoart (which differs from environmental art by virtue of its focus on ethics) has been around since the mid-20th century, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. While there is a significant continuum of practice, this practice has been for the most part off the radar of the art world and the general public.

You might look up the International Ecoart Network for a glimpse into practitioners: http://www.ecoartnetwork.org (please forgive our old site - we are updating) There is a large international community in daily dialogue through online lists.

All the best,
Beth Carruthers, MA (Phil) BFA
Independent Curator and Consultant, Arts & Sustainability
Instructor, Critical and Cultural Studies - Continuing Studies
Emily Carr University of Art & Design, Vancouver, Canada

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