Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Call for Artists: WetlandLIFE

June 7, 2017

Fenlake Meadows. Photo: Tim Acott

The WetlandLIFE Research Team are looking for artists whose work can contribute to our knowledge and appreciation of wetlands and mosquitoes. By this we mean artworks, in any medium, that seek to influence our awareness, understanding, attitudes, emotions, values or behaviour towards them, and the ecological and social interactions that have brought them into being. This might be done by communicating the findings of researchers about wetlands and mosquitoes to new audiences, challenging how we think about them, or changing how we feel about them – perhaps helping us connect with them in new ways.

This is an exciting opportunity for artists to work alongside local communities and a diverse team of environmental researchers to show how art can influence how we value nature and ecosystem services. The focus of work will be on the Somerset Levels, Humber Levels and Thames Estuary, although reference will also be made to a broad range of inland and marine wetlands across England to capture the diversity of these places.

We are offering three bursaries of £5,000 each (total of £15,000). Artists can apply for the total amount – and create work that relates to the project’s three case study sites or to wetlands in general – or for one bursary worth £5000 – perhaps focusing specifically on one of the sites. We welcome applications from consortiums of artists working together to address all three sites. The bursaries cover the artist(s) fees, accommodation and travel, and all costs associated with the production and display of the artworks.

Artworks by the successful artist/s will be included in a final touring exhibition, planned in early/mid 2019, which will visit each of the three case study sites.

The full brief is available on the WetlandLIFE website.

WetlandLIFE is one of the projects funded through the multi-Research Council Valuing Nature Programme.

Anne Douglas – Low Carbon Futures: what have the arts and humanities got to do with it?

May 30, 2017

How many lawyers does it take to make Scotland low carbon? How many artists? You might think it doesn’t matter – it’s the scientists, engineers and politicians who will make the difference.

But increasingly it is recognised that our addition to fossil fuels is as much cultural as it is infrastructural. Single occupancy car use is related to our western individualism as is the instant, always ‘on’ culture of 24/7 which leaves no ‘down time’ and means that everything is available always (including summer fruits in the middle of winter) . The overarching question throughout the two days whether explored philosophically, legally or in terms of journalism, was How have we constructed this culture?” Before we can change it, we need to grasp our entanglements.

Connecting with a Low Carbon Future, University of Stirling, Law and Philosophy Department 19th-20th April, 2017

This conference explored what the arts and humanities can offer the transition to a low carbon future. Until recently the issue has been dominated by science and technology but there is a growing recognition that transition is equally a social and cultural issue.

Co-ordinated by Professor Gavin Little, Department of Law and Philosophy, as part of a research project funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the ambition for the event was high. The conference drew research papers from throughout Europe deliberately clustered into humanities disciplines that were closely related: law and politics; philosophy, culture and history; theatre studies and literature; visual arts, media and cultural studies.

The convenors framed a number of challenges. What might the humanities offer in terms of:

  • identifying barriers to low carbon transitions
  • achieving transition in ways that are ethically just
  • understanding and influencing political power?

Researchers across all domains are accustomed to revealing to peers what they understand differently as a consequence of a process of inquiry – negotiating knowledge within a discipline. It is a kind of test in the company of others equally equipped with the relevant expertise to judge the level, depth and authority of what is claimed. We work within disciplines as knowledge domains and traditionally in the arts and humanities, as lone researchers.

This gathering challenged us to undertake a different approach.

Firstly, arts and humanities disciplines needed to open up their discrete and individualistic ways of knowing, to come together on a shared issue: transition to a low carbon future. The parallel sessions organised in the closely aligned discipline clusters revealed clearly how the issue of transition reaches to the heart of how we, as human beings, make meaning and confer value. At no point to my knowledge was the potential of arts and humanities research on the issue in question. Nonetheless it became clear that it would take time to figure out how to be effective in an area normally associated with science and technology.

Secondly transition necessitates dialogue across disciplines but frequently when such dialogues take place, they only operate at a very superficial level. This gathering encouraged us to encounter other ways of knowing and examine the assumptions and constraints of other knowledge practices (as well as our own). A better understanding of assumptions and constraints might forge new connections across the different disciplines representing the arts and humanities.

Thirdly, knowledge of transition needs practical and experiential as well as theoretical ways of knowing. This was possibly the least developed aspect. As academics we are accustomed to being experts that draw from human society, its materials and practices, for the purposes of analysis and to pass wisdom on as the end point of the research process. This linearity and its implicit power relationship needs to be rethought to construct modalities of co-researching with non academic partners. This was touched on through notions of action, activism and practice based research but not perhaps yet fully grasped in the discussions as a radically different research approach.

Across the two days we encountered rich narratives of research that revealed the degree to which the arts and humanities try to understand the future from the past. The rate and nature of climate change has in many ways confounded learning in this way – climate change provokes us to think outside of the limits of our current knowledge and imagine what might be. Putting the issue of escalating change vividly, Professor Jose Albelda Raga, artist and ecologist from the Polytechnic University of Valencia in his co-authored paper with Nuria Sanchez, cited the Global Footprint Network that had proposed that our current rate of consumption will shortly exceed 1.5 planets while we only have the knowledge to inhabit one.

For some, notably Julian Dobson from Sheffield Hallam, who has been researching institutions committed to low carbon cultures, we need to become less dependent upon what has gone before and carefully examine systems in relation to logics of value – a university will value education whereas a local government will value civic responsibility. Inevitably there will be discord but this can become a creative opportunity if we forgo a set of cultural values based in expectation (of a secured life style, within an economic systems based in growth and development) to values of hope. It is only by relinquishing expectation that we could ever countenance our own possible extinction. The juxtaposition of the values represented by, on the one hand, expectation and on the other, hope is particularly challenging. One is focused on ‘what we have’ and the other on ‘what we might need’…

Professor Janet Stewart, University of Durham, delivered the first keynote. She framed the complexities and sheer difficulties of the issues of a low carbon future by evidencing how since 19th century industrialisation, metaphors of extraction had become hardwired into our everyday thinking, locking us into particular ways of imagining ourselves in the world. These both reveal and conceal the implications of fossil fuel dependence.

Stewart explored how photography for example is materially tied into the oil industry even though this is not explicitly acknowledged. It is also the main medium through which we are trained to see and celebrate extractive processes, for example in museum displays that draw on earth sciences. She referenced the recent development of energy displays in Vienna’s Museum of Technology. In various seductive ways oil culture and fossil fuel dependence in the 21st century had become ‘hidden from plain view’. We pretend, for example, that digital communication is in some sense immaterial, or at least drawing on ‘clean energy’, while in fact the storage and transfer of digital data is causing significant environmental problems.

Stewart’s keynote offered a number of important insights that were revisited across the two days, principally the recognition of how difficult it is to escape from current ways of thinking and acting. We are consistently reinforcing what Stewart termed ‘extractive seeing’ as a cultural regime and find it hard to escape the control that such a regime exercises. We ‘mine information’ and ‘read deeply’. To move away from this type of control, we need to think about ‘decarbonised seeing’ to begin to displace ‘extractive seeing’ and to come to the surface in reading the world.

Dr Pietari Kappa, University of Warwick, resonated the gap between subject matter and material practices in the film industry. Film producers might draw attention to the need for a low carbon future through the content of a film narrative but rarely produced film following low carbon practices. A much quoted example was the Mad Max film series, a dystopian narrative about a post oil culture that has been produced through conventional high carbon consumption. The whole industry is rife with contradiction and in some cases, forms of delusion. He placed ICT technologies at a carbon footprint of 3 per cent which equates with flights.


Other presentations (notably Louise Guibrunet, University of London, and her exploration of the informal labour of refuse collectors in Mexico City) emphasised the importance of contradiction as a research tool and that meaning cannot be abstracted out of and away from the context of experience. The standoff between local government in Mexico City and an informal, but essential, public service of waste collection helped her to grasp the social, cultural, economic and political issues of waste pickers in a particular suburb of Mexico City. Echoing Julian Dobson’s point about discord in civic life, she pointed out that the Mexican government, unlike other areas of Latin America, could not formally recognise the important work of waste pickers because such work was illegal. This locked in the problem of escalating waste in the city centre. Arriving at shared meaning involves taking on perspectives that might radically differ from our own, not as a process of measurement or aggregation but as an encounter with difference that at some point requires resolution to move on, even if that resolution is to live with the contradiction.

In this respect the significance of practice outside of the academic institution, formed an important issue within some of the sessions, but perhaps insufficiently. This issue was revisited in the plenary. In this presentation Dr Dominic Hinde, University of Edinburgh, an environment correspondent working globally, emphasised the need to draw together the practice of journalism with research practice to ensure that a topic as pressing as the Anthropocene did not disappear from view. Journalism as a practice was in chaos economically and politically. Reporting the Anthropocene demanded a practice that was not caught up in capitalism. It needed to be a research practice that was decolonised, e.g. by forming global networks of mutually supportive researchers/practitioners.

The role of the imagination appeared in many guises. Without imagination it would be impossible to think ‘time’, to conceive a time long before human existence or, as we currently understand the future, long after such existence has ceased. Imagination and language, working in the contexts of particular interests, make visible and also conceal what we think to be ‘true’ or ‘real’. Camille Biros and Caroline Rossi, Université Grenoble Alpes, have undertaken to analyse the corpus of the United Nations and a selection of NGOs to track and define justice through these texts, using particular software. The research sets out to map the different interests at work in full knowledge that the least responsible are the most effected. It also reveals that justice is largely defined from the perspective of human self- interest. It is worth noting perhaps that this focus runs counter to recent developments to grant legal status, ‘personhood’, to aspects of ‘nature’ such as New Zealand’s Whanganui River, sacred to the Maori people.


In introducing the plenary session, Professor Little explored the challenges of interdisciplinarity that occur in opening up new research domains such as Energy Humanities and Environmental Humanities. He stressed the value of discipline specific knowledge, its rigorous evolution and identifiable expertise. He re-iterated Joe Moran’s notion of inter-disciplinarity – it challenges old disciplines to interact and contribute expertise to a common practice. He drew a distinction between radical and moderate forms of collaboration where the former attempts to cross significant boundaries such as literature and hard sciences, risking superficiality and the latter has a more moderate, but potentially more profound ambition to interact with expertise that is more alike and by implication, less superficial e.g. politics and media. Hence the conference was structured in relation to close discipline alliances. Gavin Little made a powerful case for why issues such as a low carbon future cannot be left to science and technology alone as they demand a tectonic shift in human thought and value systems.

I share the concern to avoid superficiality, the tendency particularly in science/art collaborations to bolt the arts onto science in a purely illustrative function. It is interesting to note how rarely artists, for example, collaborate with disciplines that are close to them, preferring instead to make alliances with scientists. This is evident in the practice of the Harrisons, ecology artists, that our own paper*, co-authored with Chris Fremantle, addressed. Our point was to develop a framework for understanding the contribution the arts could make to transition. We looked at the early work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, founders of the art and ecology movement. In particular we focused on the way in which their approach constructs dialogue across disciplines (including the sciences), contexts (local/global), constituencies (institutions, individuals, organisations) focused on a very particular ecological issue – the food chain of catfish, the ecological interdependence between algae and brine shrimp. In other words their practice begins with a very local observation from which a conversation is generated that involves whoever can support, problematize or imagine the implications of single instance of organic life for planetary well-being.

The Harrisons frame questions, for some of which there is no known methodology. They engage the imagination of multiple contributors in speculating on the implications of certain hard won insights that emerge through shared inquiry. Alongside this kind of speculative imagination that draws rigorously on evidence based research, there is practical wisdom – knowledge and experiences of place and dwelling in everyday life. They show how the arts, and by extension the humanities, draw together rigour with participation /collaboration, imagination with data and its interpretation. Arguably all these are essential to facing a future that will be completely different from the past and present.

In other words climate change and the move towards a low carbon future, it would appear, is pushing us in the arts and humanities to move quickly and in multiple directions – to move beyond a love of well honed skills/methods to become immersed in issues as they appear in life, in places, with individuals and communities, to see ourselves as part of the materiality of experience and to develop our research from a proactive, if not activist, position.

In the plenary, Nuria Sanchez made a radical proposal for developing the discussion out of her experience of delivering an innovative interdisciplinary Diploma in sustainability, ecological Ethics and environmental education at the University of Valencia, led by Professor Jose Albelda . She proposed that we start with a question core to transition, using the conference to generate a paper by working in interdisciplinary teams that would be presented as the end point of a conversation. This proposal, completely alien to most arts and humanities academics would on the one hand require teamwork and the negotiation of the boundaries of several disciplines and on the other speed, for she proposed that the paper might be written in a couple of days.

What are the wider implications of Nuria’s proposal?

It would mean centring our questions on matters of the environment whether or our disciplines were accustomed to framing such questions i.e. questions that at the point of posing them, may not be possible to answer from within a single discipline.

It would mean listening deeply to forms of expertise beyond our own discipline and figuring out the relationship that that discipline’s way of knowing bears to our own, encountering and embracing difference as well as discord as a creative, generative force.

It would mean rethinking rigour. This is currently invested in selecting and applying method appropriately but may came to mean understanding the degree to which method itself shapes and limits what can be known. It would mean developing skills in constructing relations (across disciplines as well as non academic partnerships), skills of empathy and of the imagination.

It would mean rethinking the dichotomy between ‘pure’ ‘primary’ research and ‘functional’ ‘urgent’ research, questioning the assumption that primary research is not functional or pure research is not urgent. In other words new ways of thinking about life on earth through literature might be recognised as as urgent as understanding bark beetle infestations.

It would mean rethinking economies of research, Ecology and economy share the same root of ‘oiko’ meaning ‘home’. Instead of research feeding capitalist economies i.e. research that makes money and addressing the side effects that follow, this approach demands that we rethink how to manage resources in sustaining life to narrow the gap between rich and poor as part of taking take care of the environment.


* Abstract: How do artists meet the challenges of a low carbon future? The poetics of ecology art practice
Anne Douglas and Chris Fremantle

We are accustomed to analysing and evaluating the work of art in ecology in terms of a ‘one-off’ project or intervention, as subject matter more than process. We argue that it is the poetics of a practice taken as a whole that is key to understanding how artists address the challenges of a low carbon future.

A practice is simultaneously a belief about what can be known (an ontology) and a form of action in the world. Ontologies underpin discipline specific knowledge. They are powerful. They draw on existing knowledge (epistemologies) and follow explicit approaches (methodologies) in order to create a position of authority through consensus, conformity and verification within each discipline’s community.

In contrast, an artist’s practice is put together/ made by an individual. It evolves over time, subjectively. The artist as ecologist works with the complexity of specific experiences and contexts, open to divergent, contradictory views and values. Managing complexity is important to ecology’s tracing of relations and interdependencies within natural systems.

Drawing on the work of Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison as a foundational practice in art and ecology since the early 1970s, we will establish a framework for understanding how the arts in ecology enable us as critical citizens to take, rather than defer, responsibility to science or governments. The Harrisons’ practice is driven by carefully framed questions that enable participants to judge what is important/unimportant in a particular situation. They deploy a metaphor for sharing knowledge and understanding. ‘Conversational drift’ forms and informs slowly like a glacier, gathering momentum while creating the energy for change.

Review: Gut Gardening

March 24, 2017


Ewan Davidson reviews Gut Gardening, Food Phreaking:issue 03 from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, published Oct 2016.  You can order copies here.

Ewan Davidson is a blogger and self-identified psychogeographer ( His recent wanderings have taken back into familiar territories, those of ecology, natural metaphors and causality, he first visited as a student thirty years ago. He is also really fond of lichens and birdwatching.

It is only about a decade since the microbiome became a thing. Fuzzy boundaried notions collect all kinds of aspirational, utopian fluff, and the microbiome – a paradigmatic concept of the cyber-age – has the capacity to multiply these as quickly as (aerobic) bacteria grow on a Petri dish.

The role of microbiologists is to culture the useful part of these into something that might grow and become valued. The Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health in Aberdeen has been involved in this research effort and the artists/designers known as The Center for Genomic Gastronomy have been Leverhulme Artists in Residence involved in the dissemination of the stuff.

The most recent publication in their Food Phreaking series of pamphlets, Gut Gardening, reaches for a compromise between populist publicity, sober accounting and dis-illusion. Most writing about the microbiome oscillates between potential and entropy in this way. For example the story which most of us will have heard in some form concerns the microbial base for obesity. This is drawn from a research programme described at length in I Contain Multitudes (Yong 2016) where generations of lab mice have been grown in a sterile environment, gnotobiosis, and are used as receptacles of cultures of microbes from obese or normal humans. Fat gut microbes produced fat mice, which in turn produced the headlines about gut microflora creating obesity, which in turn received the ‘Overselling the Microbiome Award’, which has at least 38 former winners for extrapolations from interesting test results (others including cures for IBD, diabetes and mental illness, as well as jeremiads about the harm of antibiotics).

This particular replication keeps happening because the scientists had to move beyond the simple correlation of one thing with another, and see if there were links which might be predictable or causal. This has proved much more complicated – in the case of our mouse, food, genetics and the developmental stage all matter. The gut microbiome, when studied closely, stopped being one thing and became many.


To improve the chance of establishing causality in the lab, anaerobic chamber cultures of the various bacterial species are grown in separate wells. They are mixed by a robot into different recipes, which are then transplanted into the gnotobiotic mice. The conclusions drawn from extensive trials are that 11 bacterial species are involved in some way in promoting obesity (in mice, and perhaps humans) and two other species seem to inhibit. But only if certain other factors apply, and only, so far, under controlled conditions.

Meanwhile in the outside, more chaotic world (what the scientists I trained with used to call ‘the field’, with heavily inverted commas) the Human Microbiome Project, collecting submitted poo samples, has established that there is no such thing as a typical US volunteer gut community. Nicola Twilley, blogger and gastrophile, writes in Gut Gardening,

‘It now seems our gut microbiome is not a single organ,that can function well or badly. Instead it is a series of negotiations and trade offs, in which distinctions between good and bad have been increasingly difficult to extract from the white noise generated by up to a thousand different microbial spp, all interacting with each other in ways that we mostly don’t yet understand.’

The Scottish biologist D’Arcy Thomson’s 80 year old view that ‘we have come to the edge of a world of which we have no experience and where all our preconceptions must be recast’ (1992) still seems apt.


Dr Wendy Russell, lead editor of Gut Gardening and a Senior Research Fellow at the Rowett, acknowledges that research into the microbiome creates a new set of challenges to scientific method (isolation, refinement, replication). In short the basic tools of instrumentalism are not effective in explaining or predicting the functions of microbial ecology. New forms of research which can deal with complexity might involve technologies like the anaerobic machine, but also strands of maths which can assess the relative contributions of parts of systems that can’t effectively be separated. And beyond those, new ways of thinking about causation.

It is not that utility can’t be found. One of the contributions to Gut Gardening is the story of Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Following observations that l. rhamnosus proliferate in a healthy vagina, Gregor Reid’s team cultured the GR-1 strain of this, and found it was linked to defence against Urinary Tract Infections and other types of immunity. Preparation and trials in yoghurt and capsule forms and have been developed commercially (sidestepping the restrictions involved in creating conventional medical products) and as part of a development project producing probiotic yoghurt in Tanzania. The efficacy comes from accepting the rough pragmatic tools of correlation and amelioration, without the poesis of understanding the nature of the thing and the process.

However there is another form of usefulness in new knowledge. The art work in Gut Gardening acknowledges this in background chaotic patterns of tangled and unfamiliar overlapping shapes with occasional highlighted (and even dayglo) squiggles. The publication gently lays down the challenge to its contributors to imagine and speculate.
One of the interesting speculations of the Center for PostNatural History is that the human gut flora, like our pets, will ‘reflect human desires and anxieties which influence them’. It’s a good trope, although so far most of us have been interested in the influences pulling the other way – that our bodies, lifestyles and consciousness are subtly directed by the growth and byproducts of our microbial partners/symbionts, through biofeedback loops between the flora, hormones, organ development and appetites.

Post natural and post human are spirallingly anthropocene ways of thinking about the world. For those of us whose interest in cultures is not mainly probiotic this is the great re-envisaging potential of the microbiome.


Jamie Lorimer’s jovial piece (2016), Gut Buddies about the related interest in re-infestation of humans with hookworms demonstrates the continual crossover between enthusiasts, scientists and entrepreneurs (sometimes the same figure in different guises) opening up an area of interaction with biota (or domestication if you will). What was once vermin is now a product or a pet. We should know that this happens – this replicates our human history. Are there new possibilities for envisaging being raised by the way we have to understand the microbiome..? Moulders and shapers need to understand things as material – as something with predictable usefulness. But time and again with the microbiome, there are ways in which our methodologies fails us. We retreat to scratch our head. The ways we come to understand the microbiome will have to challenge scientific paradigms too.

In a way which is less dystopian than the control metaphors of the yellow science press we are indeed being subtly influenced by our microbes.


Lorimer, Jamie (2016) Gut Buddies – Multispecies Studies and the Microbiome, Environmental Humanities, 8.1

Yong, Ed ( 2016) I Contain Multitudes – The Microbes Within us and a Grander view of Life.  New York: Ecco Press.

Wentworth-Thompson, D’Arcy (1992) – On Growth and Form ( abridged ed). CUP.


Video of Tim Ingold’s lecture “The Sustainability of Everything”

October 12, 2016

The Centre for Human Ecology has just posted a video of Tim Ingold’s lecture.

Ingold’s Sustainability of Everything

September 25, 2016

Sustainability is an overused word.  It is much diminished by its occurrence in too many documents purporting to suggest that transport, local government or how anything is sustainable following the end of grant funding.  But we know that sustainability matters and thinking out of the current construction doesn’t happen nearly enough.

Tim Ingold’s lecture at the Centre for Human Ecology (Pearce Institute, Govan) on Saturday 10 September was entitled ‘The Sustainability of Everything’.  This provocative phrase came from an invitation to talk at a previous event about sustainability in relation to art and science, citizenship and democracy, love and friendship.

Ingold used ‘everything’ including qualities and processes as a way to open up a trenchant criticism of not merely the usage of sustainability but more widely the turn in science to data and the atomisation of everything.

Tim Ingold is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen.  He is known for his distinctive, arts and humanities inflected approach to anthropology.  He is currently leading ‘Knowing from the Inside’, a major European Research Council funded project involving anthropologists, archaeologists, architects and artists.

For Ingold the question of sustainability is not “How can we carry on doing what we are doing but with a bit less waste and impact?” but rather “What kind of world has a place for us and future generations?” “What does carrying on mean?” and more practically speaking “How do we make it happen?”

The key point is that everything in Ingold’s sense is not the collection of all the individual bits, but something different.  His problem with current science and current constructions of sustainability are their reliance on isolating something to analyse it.  Ingold comes at things looking for movement and entanglement rather than boundary.  To make this point he uses examples where either you don’t know where one thing ends and another starts, or examples of things in motion.  So he asks for instance whether the bird’s nest is part of the tree?  Or whether the wind that has made the tree grow bent over is part of the tree?  He asks if you can tell which part of the eddy in the stream is the ‘inside’ and which is the ‘outside’?

The importance of this approach is that it opens up new ways of experiencing and knowing which are more process oriented rather than object oriented.  Artists in particular respond enthusiastically to this way of knowing.

Ingold further developed this through Lucretius’ idea that everything is in motion and when things bump into each other they form knots – clouds are knots of water and temperature and wind.  Trees are complex knots.  Ingold evolves the idea of knots by pointing out that rope stays together through a combination of twist and friction.  He notes that harmony (eg polyphonic music) is exactly the same – a combination of elements that in themselves might initially appear to be in conflict but in relationship with each other are beautiful.  Again he’s nodding to artists ways of knowing.  In his terms everything is a “correspondence of parts” – not a totality but rather a carrying on.

Having set up this alternative way of understanding Ingold highlighted how current formulations of sustainability are underpinned by an assumption that the “entire earth is a standing reserve” and that we need to protect the earth in the way that a company protects its profits.  He drew attention to the underlying corporate or management language implicit in these descriptions of sustainability and how this is true of conservation organisations as much as corporations and governments. Furthermore of course Paulo Friere provided a deep critique of the ‘banking’ model of education which is closely aligned with this accounting version of sustainability.

Having established what he meant by ‘everything’, Ingold went on to construct an idea of ‘carrying on’.  To do this he referred to traditional ways of forestry in Japan where there is a dynamic relationship between the forester, the forest and the building of a house articulated in a 30 year cycle – trees take 30 years to grow and a house needs renewed every 30 years.  Trees are planted, foresters learn to build houses, trees are cut to build houses, trees are planted.  It is very different from the forms of plantation forestry and clear felling we experience across much of Scotland.

In conclusion Ingold came back to the themes of art and science, citizenship and democracy, peace and friendship.  He suggested that science has reneged on its commitment to understanding the world in ways that are useful for life, and that in his view environmental arts do this more effectively now.  He talked about the need for a politics of difference and the importance of embracing tension and agonism.

Reflecting on this talk there are a few key points that are worth teasing out of Ingold’s valuable line of argument.

Firstly, the construction of sustainability currently offered in ‘sustainable development’ and ‘ecosystems services’ is fundamentally human-centric and has lost any connection with the ‘existence value’ of the non-human as constructed by the likes of Arne Naess, Gregory Bateson and many others which were early inspirations of the environmental movement (and remain very influential on environmental arts). Ingold’s focus on entanglement and movement is a useful counter to ‘banking’ approaches. *

Secondly, we need to recognise that our current construction of sustainability is only one possible construction.  It is in terms of conventional ethics basically a form of Utilitarianism – the greatest good for the greatest number.  And in this respect it suffers from all the criticisms of Utilitarianism in being fundamentally subjective and in environmental terms challenging – if more than half the world’s population lives in cities then what is good for cities must be good for humans – that is a bizarre thought (although one often promoted by architects and urban planners)!  But the point is that Ingold is providing an underpinning articulation of ‘being’ that asks for a different ethics – one which accepts the conflicts but accords value to the connectedness of everything and its motion.  So he positively argued against the conservation of trees and in favour of the carrying on of planting and growing, felling and building as a cycle. Perhaps Ingold doesn’t go far enough – Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, eminent ecological artists, argue that we need to ‘put more back into ecological systems than we take out’ in our carrying on. By this they mean that our cycles need to be weighted to greater biodiversity and strengthening ecological cycles.

Finally Ingold’s construction, particularly of ‘knots’ is useful if we recognise that we humans are arch constructors of knots.  Everything we make is some sort of knot whether it’s food or paths or roads or houses or nuclear power stations or mustard gas or satellites.  And if we can imagine a knot then we will make it.  If its been imagined then someone is trying to make it, somewhere.  That’s an interesting problem.  It’s prompted discussions around what ‘responsible innovation’ might be. How can we create knots that make for healthier places for all living things.


* I’m indebted to Dave Pritchard for elucidating this evolution through the sequence of major environmental summits starting in Stockholm in 1972 and progressing in 10 yearly intervals through to Rio+20 in 2012.  He correlated this with the shift from an environmentalism of ‘existence value’ through to ‘ecosystems services’ and ‘sustainable development’.  Each Summit sought to achieve greater policy impact and as a result reframed in terms of acceptable (human-centric) policy.


Art and Energy futures

September 5, 2016
Map showing where people are coming from across UK and Ireland- there is also a statement on environmental impact. – there is also a statement on environmental impact

Art, particularly sited work, can create a ‘third space’ for public discourse.  By ‘third space’ we mean a space other than the commercial or governmental spaces for people to engage with issues.  This is often characterised by being non-hierarchical, open and willing to embrace contradiction, uncertainty, etc.  Probably because it’s created by artists who have no ‘locus’ for instigating it, the power relations are different.  No-one is trying to sell you anything and there isn’t a policy agenda being fulfilled (and these days the people selling you stuff aren’t hidden behind the people claiming to represent you).

Examples include Tim Collins and Reiko Goto’s recent work imagining the future of the Caledonian Forest through the Blackwood of Rannoch (and previously their work on rivers in Pittsburgh) and Suzanne Lacy’s current project in Pendle with superslowway and immigrants and locals as well as her previous work including 10 years of work in Oakland, CA, or Jonathan Baxter and Sarah Gittins’ Dundee Urban OrchardJay Koh, who wrote Art-Led Participative Processes: Dialogue & Subjectivity within Performances in the Everyday, recently spoke in Glasgow.

The Land Art Generator, PLATFORM London’s 25 years of work on fossil fuels, the actions of Liberate Tate, Ellie Harrison’s RRAAF project intended to use renewables to finance activist art and many others have created this third space to address power and the social, cultural and environmental impacts of our insatiable need for energy.

The Feeding the Insatiable Art and Energy Symposium at Schumacher in November will bring together an outstanding line-up of artists and activists to reflect on the current state of work in this area.

Amongst the people presenting are Cathy Fitzgerald who is an artist and Irish Green Party’s spokesperson on Forestry; David Haley who has written extensively on art and uncertainty; Beth Carruthers, one of the key art and sustainability theorists working with deep ecology approaches; Hannah Imlach is a young artist from Scotland who’s recent projects directly engage with renewables; Laura Watts describes herself as a writer, poet, and ethnographer of futures – she is one of the authors of ebban an flowan along with Alec Finlay and Alistair Peebles; Ian Garrett is a key theorist and practitioner of sustainable design for theatre and behind the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts; and finally Loraine Leeson who is one of the foremost practitioners of socially engaged art in the UK and is currently working with a group of geezers on renewables on the River Lee in East London.  And these are only some of the people presenting.

Feeding the Insatiable promises to be a key moment for sharing practice, exploring theory and imagining policy.  As Chloe Uden of RegenSW’s Art and Energy programme said, “Energy Policy needs to become interesting”.  The arts are key to creating spaces for that to happen.

International summit and residential short course discuss renewables, aesthetics, and the philosophy of consumption in association with Schumacher College and Dartington is offering two linked consecutive events this coming November: an international summit/conference Feeding the Insatiable: real and imagined narratives of art, energy and consumption for a troubled planet from November 9-11, and Regenerative Art: creating public art with self-sustaining power a residential short course from November 11-13, 2016.

Both events take place within the extraordinary setting of Dartington Hall in southwest England.

Feeding the Insatiable ( features thinkers and makers from across the world, with an opening keynote event from The Land Art Generator Initiative (Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian) with ecoartist / producer Chris Fremantle from eco/art/scot/land. Futurist Laura Watts will present the second keynote on Day 2 of the summit. Other sessions focus on Ecologies, Shaping the World, Artist projects, Communicating, Energy Generation and Poetics.

The residential short course ( is led by Land Art Generator Initiative and offers an opportunity for a much more in-depth and hands-on exploration of the aesthetics of renewable energy and the implications for public policy and design. This practice-based short course provides participants with useful knowledge and experience for creatively integrating renewable energy systems into cherished cultural environments as a part of a larger strategic approach to carbon reduction. The workshop will focus on the Dartington estate and seek to identify opportunities to place new infrastructures in open areas while maintaining shared use with open spaces and other campus functions.

The Land Art Generator Initiative has become one of the world’s most followed sustainable design events and is inspiring people everywhere about the promise of a net-zero carbon future. LAGI is showing how innovation through interdisciplinary collaboration, culture, and the expanding role of technology in art can help to shape the aesthetic impact of renewable energy on our constructed and natural environments.
The goal of LAGI is to design and construct a series of large-scale site-specific public art installations that uniquely combine art with utility scale clean energy generation.

Both events are suitable for more than just experienced designers, architects or artists. If you have an interest in public spaces, public art policy and design, renewable energy and its aesthetics and impact on the visual landscape, or are a landowner or property owner interested in more visually appealing ways to work with renewable energy then this event is for you.

You can register for both events individually, or if you wish to register for both there are special discounted packages available. See For artists and other independent researchers, there is a limited number of concessionary registrations available.

These events are produced by ( in partnership with Regen SW

More information at

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