Art and Sustainability

Sacha Kagan announced the publication of his Art and Sustainability: Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity by Bielefeld: transcript Verlag in July 2011.

Art and Sustainability represents the publication of Sacha’s PhD.  ecoartscotland is very pleased to be able to publish a ‘Short Impression’ in advance of the publication of the full text.  The ‘Short Impression’ has been written by Hans Dieleman who was on the panel that awarded Sacha his PhD ‘summa cum laude’.  Thanks to both Hans and Sacha for allowing ecoartscotland to publish the text that follows.

Kagan starts his analysis pointing at the Western development model and the modern worldview that lie at the heart of unsustainability. He characterizes the modern worldview, following Laszlo, as based in the classical scientific method and as atomistic, materialistic, individualistic and Eurocentric. Kagan`s assumption is that in order to change our actual culture of unsustainability in a sustainable one, we will have to look for an alternative worldview and go beyond utilitarian rationality that is so very common in our contemporary cultures and in most analyses of sustainability. We will have to engage ourselves in a really fundamental rethinking of our culture and our ways of thinking, knowing and seeing ourselves and the world.

A substantial part of the book is devoted to this fundamental and critical rethinking, while exploring two related questions: (1) “can we identify a worldview that is not plagued with these characteristics, and that can be looked upon as a basis for a culture (and cultures) of sustainability?”, and (2) “what are the mechanisms of change and especially the agents of change in a process away from the Western unsustainable worldview towards a (more) sustainable one?”. In exploring these questions, Kagan is presenting a broad panorama of theoretical approaches as well as artistic schools and projects while he manages to link, contextualize and relate these approaches and projects in consistent ways. As a result the book is relevant for scientists and academics as well as for artists and art managers.

He finds the answer to the first question predominantly in the works of 4 authors, most of them being system thinkers: Edgar Morin, Basarab Nicolescu, Gregory Bateson and David Abram. I emphasize the word “predominantly” as he is mentioning various other authors along his presentation of these key ones.

A key characteristic of a culture – and of cultures – of sustainability is complexity. In developing this central idea, Kagan draws mainly on the works of Morin and Nicolescu. The work of both authors, Kagan is claiming, prevent us from simple classical scientific and atomistic thinking and therefore prevent us from a fragmentation of our understanding of the world, which is one reason behind current unsustainability.

The essence of Morin´s complexity thinking is that there is no such thing as clear and univocal ideas and notions, with simple causal logical relationships between them. To look for them and to make finding them the main academic and intellectual endeavour is one of the key fallacies of modernity. Every idea, every notion of reality, is interrelated with other notions that are often complementary or even antagonistic. Here we find one of the key principles of complexity thinking: the principle of dialogic, the simultaneous working of two logics that complement and/or compete with each other. Morin´s thinking on complexity shows us the inadequacy of simple oppositions like “culture <> nature”, “natural <> artificial” or “eco <> nature”. Morin`s complexity thinking also leads us the notion of “macro-concepts”. These concepts organize complex relationships between single entities, without being limited by the classical logical axiom of non-contradiction. One such macro-concept is that of “eco-autoorganization” which is the basis for Kagan´s concept of “autoecopoïesis”.

From Nicolescu´s work Kagan takes the important notion of transdisciplinarity and his critique on the principles of classical modern physics with its assumptions of continuity, local causality, determinism and binary logic. The implications of these insights are far-reaching. The consequence is a real paradigmatic change from classical logic that says that “A is A” and can never be “non-A”, towards the acceptance of “the logic of the included third”: the existence of “T”, being “A and non-A” at the same time. One of the implications is that in knowing and seeing reality, we enrich ourselves tremendously when we include various ways of knowing and structuring of reality, which calls for the practice of transdisciplinarity. This is much more than multi- and interdisciplinarity that is rather common today. The logic of the included third implies that there is potential knowing beyond and in between the disciplines that calls for ways of knowing beyond and in between the scientific and/or academic disciplines.

The relevance of Bateson is first of all to be found in the necessity to be able to be sensitive to complexity: to “know”, to “understand” or to “feel” complexity. Kagan takes from Bateson the important notion that this “knowing” implies a more-than-conscious mode of knowing.

“Knowing” becomes a way of connecting ourselves with the complex world around us. This connecting is necessarily transdisciplinary and asks for the involvement of body and soul, and of all the human senses in an integrated way. Secondly the notion of “aesthetics” is introduced and especially Bateson´s notion that aesthetics is the responsiveness to the patterns that connect. Kagan then analyses various ways of sensibility to the world around us, varying from Morin´s art principle and Nicolescu´s transdisciplinary sensibility to phenomenological and animistic sensibility to a world that is far more than human. Discussing animistic sensitivity, Kagan draws largely on David Abram’s book “The spell of the sensuous”. Analysing these various sensitivities, Kagan introduces the concept of the “aesthetics of sustainability” and gives the concept his own interpretation.

Taking the concepts of complexity, autoecopoïesis, transdisciplinarity, aesthetics as sensitivity to the patterns that connect, as well as animistic sensitivity, Kagan sketches some key contours of a culture – and of cultures – of sustainability. Or being more accurate, following the title of the book, contours of cultures of complexity.

His second major issue concerns the change process of our actual culture to a more sustainable one, based on the principles of complexity thinking. Here he introduces the arts and artists, as well as the concept of “conventions”. In his analysis of conventions he is to a large extend basing himself on Howard Becker´s “Art Worlds”, yet trying to give the concept a broader meaning. Implicit in his analysis is the sociological notion of social reality as a social construction. This notion assumes that we learn throughout our lives a whole complex of conventions that tells us how to act, think and see in given situations. Along this process the world becomes “self-evident” and looks like given and unchangeable. The opposite is true however. The ways that we act, think and see are socially constructed, or are in other words conventions, and because of that it should be possible to change them and replace them with other conventions. And this opens a way to change the actual culture of unsustainability towards a culture of sustainability: through changing conventions.

The next question Kagan introduces concerns the role of art and the artists as change agents, or in Kagan´s terminology: as entrepreneurs in conventions. On page 290 (thesis) Kagan writes: “When sustainability is understood as a continuous search process, art is then to be constructed as a field of experimentation, engaged in everyday life and culture . . .”, followed on the same page with the question: “How can such a field of experimentation be practiced in, in a connective way (rather than in isolation), i.e. allowing the experimentation to be expanding beyond the delimited confines of art worlds?”

Looking for the answer Kagan clearly is not thinking in what he calls “high art” that he defines as a field of art that is a world apart from daily life, with separate laws and insider values and discourses. This kind of art serves rather as order factor than as change factor and produces agents of order rather than gents of change. Kagan looks into various developments in the art world from the nineteen sixties until today, and especially into art practices that are related to ecology, nature, environment and sustainability. He asks himself on page 199 (thesis): “How far does the aesthetics of sustainability, proposed in the previous chapter, relate to actual practices and discourses in the art worlds?” He presents a whole range of art practices and discourses starting with the Land Art of Robert Smithson while ending, via the works of Alan Sonfist, Joseph Beuys, the Harrisons, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Patricia Johanson, Aviva Rahmani, Lynne Hull, David Haley, Shelley Sacks and many more with the shamanic art of artists like Fern Schaffer and Gilah Yelin Hirsch and the “post-environmental art” as in the exhibition “Greenwashing”.

After having analysed this large group of projects, interventions, exhibitions and discourses, Kagan draws the following conclusion (page 339, thesis):

·  The degree to which specific art projects/interventions can be transformative, and can contribute especially to a sensibility to complexity, is a difficult question which at best, can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis and qualitatively. However:

·  A meaningful assessment can only be achieved if the qualitative observation is engaging the researcher as a full person, and beyond the limitations of purposive consciousness. The relevance of, and quest for aesthetics of sustainability does not only concern a specialized category of individuals (artists) or a specific social system (the arts), but all social actors, including the academic/scientific researcher.

His final conclusion on the same page is that: “In the domain of the search for cultures of sustainability, transdisciplinarity calls forward an “artscience” (..) i.e. the construction of a genuinely transdisciplinary methodology. This endeavour will require further elaborations.  However, it is not a transformative process in which a solitary researcher can engage him- or herself. This is a collective, combined exploration that has to engage artists as well as (social and natural) scientists.

6 thoughts on “Art and Sustainability

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  1. The following was posted to Sacha Kagan and the cultura 21 list serve:

    I have congratulated & thanked you privately, Sacha, but I think there are three related issues here that others are interested in that are provoked by the publication of your book, and that is why many of us have responded with enthusiasm:

    1. THE REASON FOR THE OUTPOURING IS THAT WE ARE ALL DESPERATE FOR REALLY BRILLIANT WRITING ABOUT ART, CULTURE AND the real environmental issues most of us are so concerned with. Your book, with many thanks to Hans for the moving synopsis, implies there’s light on the horizon of thinking. I am very much looking forward to reading the book because I’m sure it will be both readable and intelligent, which cannot be said for most of what I’ve been reading on “sustainability” and the arts, esp, ecological art. I hope there will be equally intelligent reviews of your book, perhaps from amongst some of us. The mainstream needs to talk about this stuff in depth and it seems to me we all have some responsibility towards making that happen.

    2. Hatto Fisher brought up a crucial point I’ve also been thinking about: the inappropriateness of terminology re: sustainability. It implies that we can either stop or regress time. Now that i’m working seriously on the environmental sciences aspect of my PhD, it is clear that the reason it is a misnomer is the same reason the term “restoration” is problemmatic. At best, we may hope for “resilient” systems that will adaptably survive the scientific novelties the anthropocene age has introduced, taking into account the inevitable dynamism of all evolutionary change and the inevitability of cataclysmic ecological change our “novelties” have already precipitated, including to questions of social justice. These are ideas I’d like to see discussed in thoughtful depth here.

    3. If we regard our biological systems as porous to evolutionary change, then they may also be effected by what landscape ecology calls expert systems in agent based modeling. In that case, the artist may be the “ecoventionist” (Amy Lipton’s term from the 2002 Ecovention show), which goes to the heart of what I have called & been developing as Trigger Point Theory. I believe this must be an informed and responsible engagement. I am judgmental of some biological art for example that engages in genetic fiddling without any concern for the consequences of that kind of intervention.

    Some may believe it is fruitless to discuss how responsible art should be but arguably, it is as valid to question intention, mode and means in culture as it is in politics or financial affairs. It seems to me that your book, Sacha, probably does exactly that and for that I am grateful. Thank you again.

  2. Speaking of systems, I see my comment was posted under my log in (ghostets) rather than my personal name: Aviva Rahmani. I found that quite wonderful, since I think the trajectory of investigating these ideas takes us away from individuals and towards changing the systems within which individuals operate. However, I also think it is useful take responsibility for one’s own ideas, as I am in this follow-up.

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