radius of art: Thematic Window - Art toward Cultures of Sustainability

Closing Plenary Session: Andrea Thilo, Marco Kusumawijaya, Patricia Kistenmacher, Onur Suzan Kömürcü Nobrega, Marcus Graf
Foto: Stephan Röhl, Quelle: Flickr, Lizenz: Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

March 22, 2012
(Peer-produced) by Sacha Kagan, Marco Kusumawijaya, Heike Löschmann and Rana Öztürk 

Within the conference, one of the four thematic-windows focused its attention on the search for cultures of sustainability. It explored possible roles of art toward a future reconciling humanity with itself and with its environments.

The Art toward Cultures of Sustainability (ACS) thematic window included 2 workshops. From these experiential processes, which had a variety of personal meanings to the participants, no general conclusions can be drawn, beyond a short description of the processes:

One of the workshops, organized by Oleg Koefoed and Valia Carvalho, was the third part of a shared process, over three days, with conference-participants and artists from the “SurVivart” project. The workshop explored collective processes between intuitions and control, material objects and subjective responses, in a self-reflexive, and often self-critical way. One of the ideas explored at the workshop was to become “archaeologists of the future”. However, the fact that two different groups of participants took part in the different days, greatly reduced the potential of the overall process.

The other workshop, organized by Shelley Sacks and Hildegard Kurt, consisted in a short version of the “Earth Forum” process. The participants explored the immediate surroundings of the Heinrich Böll building (being instructed to grab a handful of “earth” outside, and to be attentive to their own thoughts in this process) for a few minutes. Then, they re-assembled together, and practiced active listening, in a conversation that unfolded the participants' aspirations and thoughts about their future.

The ACS window also included plenary and two semi-plenary forum sessions in a more traditional conference format. From these, some key arguments can be highlighted:

At the semi-plenary forum on “Connecting and catalysing: Aesthetics, community and ecology toward a culture of sustainability”, the panelists discussed the transformation of minds and practices, through experiencing “aesthetics” rather than “anesthetics”. This point was made by Davide Brocchi, and reinforced by Shelley Sacks. Brocchi stressed, that art is often an anesthetic factor, contributing to a loss of contact from reality, a disconnection from environments. However, art can also be an aesthetic factor, promoting the communication with the outer and inner natures, fostering contaminations instead of „purity“, plurality instead of an „universal“ monoculture, and unpleasant reflection instead of comfortable entertainment.

Shelley Sacks related this aesthetic factor, to the notion of the "I-sense" (Ich-Sinn) as opposed to non-sense (Unsinn). She explained that the egocentrism of the modern man cannot be opposed only with an “ecocentric” discourse, and she argued that “a tree knows how to be a tree” while, “unlike a tree, we humans have not even begun to understand ourselves, we are just at the beginning of understanding what it means to be human ”. Human beings still need to develop their organs of perception and senses, to overcome numbness (anesthetics) and thus be able to carry or feel responsibility (i.e. response-ability).

Michelangelo Pistoletto suggested the utopian vision of a “Third Paradise” here on Earth, which is neither the first paradise of indigenous peoples, nor that second, techno-scientific paradise which now reaches its apogee in some countries of the planet, but a vision of sustainability for the reconciliation of humanity and nature.

The speakers also stressed the importance of working with science and with spirituality, and the imperative of sharing: Instead of “dividing” and excluding, the work with communities should be “con-dividing” (“condividere” in Italian, as Pistoletto explained, i.e. “sharing”).

At the plenary session on “the role of art for global (environ)mental cultural change”, the speakers discussed examples of ecological art in India (Pooja Sood) and in the Amazon (Dan Baron), and they replaced art within a discussion of practices of transdisciplinarity. David Haley stressed that “we must learn, not to be afraid of complexity and the need to foster transdisciplinarity”. He talked of the creation of a vacuum, making space or taking time into which things are drawn, allowing something to happen instead of making something happen. Both David Haley and Gianluca Bocchi pointed at Edgar Morin's insights on complexity and at Morin's notion of an “ecology of action”, i.e. the wider social consequences of one's actions cannot be planned and controlled. Gianluca Bocchi argued that we can no longer construct the future as a program, but instead, we have to learn from the environments along the way. “As a sort of a flaneur, because reality is changing in every corner”. In this process, some scientists are especially interested in working together with “artists who believe that each moment of their work is important” and who are thus ready to learn with serendipity.

At the second semi-plenary forum, “Fostering the transition towards cultures of sustainability - a policy debate”, the speakers and their audience engaged in a lively and contradictory exchange about cultural policy and other public policies, from the municipal to the international level. The importance of fighting for the recognition of “cultural sustainability” and for “keeping paragraph 16” at the Rio+20 conference coming up in June, was stressed by Jordi Pascual and debated with the audience. Pascual highlighted several “key concepts for the future” which international policy discussions on sustainability are ignoring, such as “memory, creativity, critical knowledge, rituality”. Adrienne Goehler added that “politics is not driven by holistic perspectives, but by segregation” and stressed how difficult it is to overcome the sectoral silos of policy-makers. She advocated for a “fund for aesthetics and sustainability”. During the discussion with the audience, some aspects and issues in the set-up and operations of such a fund, were critically discussed. Hildegart Kurt asked how we can make sure that such a fund can be participatory, based on bottom-up processes. She suggested to not wait until it exists, but instead consider the process of the funding becoming participatory itself. Another level discussed at the session was that of the global civil society movements, such as the World Social Forum whose lack of serious attention to the arts and living community culture, was criticized by Dan Baron.

Some of the insights from the plenary and the first semi-plenary sessions mentioned above, resonated with Sacha Kagan's essay “Toward Global (Environ)Mental Change: Transformative Art and Cultures of Sustainability” which was published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation at the occasion of the conference. The discussions at the second semi-plenary forum partly echoed the proposals made in Adrienne Goehler's essay “Conceptual Thoughts on Establishing a Fund for Aesthetics and Sustainability”, likewise published by the Foundation as a contribution to the conference.

The closing plenary session included some critical inputs by participants from the ACS thematic stream.
The observer for the ACS stream, Marco Kusumawijaya, formulated some critical points: While art is a laboratory for possible realities, a pathway through or to utopia, the conference was missing an utopian discourse, as a synthesis for aspired transformation, while on the other hand, the conference was suspiciously optimistic about the role of art and did not focus enough on the problems that art faces and that there is with art. Marco also highlighted the focus on communities and on public and/vs. common space, that was given different shades of attention during the conference and that he felt deserves further attention in future discussions and policy orientation. As an architect and urban activist he felt that there was not enough debate on this nexus.

For her part, Shelley Sacks stressed that the use of “terminology needs to be (re)-examined”. For example, she insisted that we should not confuse the importance of “experience” and experiential learning, with a naïve discursive praise of “emotions”. Experiential knowing, which includes emotion as well as thoughts, can lead to lived understanding and may enable imagination. An assessment of emotions, could contribute to the bridging of the “inner and outer disconnect”, the “science-art disconnect” enabling us to see the corridors of transdisciplinarity not as an abstract methodological approach, but rather as an aesthetics of plurality and impurity.

At that final session, Heike Löschmann expressed a self-critical point, as organizer: “We should not have disconnected the 'Art and social transformation' from 'Art toward cultures of sustainability' discourse. The separated framing has led to disconnecting (also other stream discourses) from the underlying normative direction of the aspired transformation toward societies that practice cultures of sustainability. Indeed, the informal conversations during the pauses and lunches between the sessions, reinforced the realization that many of the insights from the Art toward Cultures of Sustainability and the Art for Social Transformations streams of the conference, were potentially synergistic with each other.

Overall it was noticeable, that the four streams nested in different institutional attitudes, linguistical and communication cultures displaying a variety of approaches and appropriation of the conference´s themes and related dynamics.


Radius of Art - Creative politicisation of the public sphere

The conference was designed to contribute to the international discussion around the effects art and culture have on socio-ecological transformation toward cultures of sustainability, in particular on democratisation processes and forms of political participation and social empowerment, political awareness-raising and the forming of public opinion. The dossier offers a summary of the results and suggestions of the conference.
» Dossier: Creative politicisation of the public sphere - Cultural potentials for socials transformation