Dr Ria Dunkley discusses bringing creativity into the debate for building a sustainable future.
Arts events can be evocative means of creating dialogue on environmental and social issues. Over the past three weeks I’ve attended three such events, all addressing the role of the arts in building sustainable societies. Organisers and participants came from divergent backgrounds and disciplinary perspectives, each bringing unique frames of reference. Consequently, in each gathering, it was proposed that the arts could galvanise sustainable societies in remarkably different ways, while there were also, of course, people at each event who believed that this wasn’t the purpose of art at all.
The first event was held at Warwick Arts Centre, as part of the ‘Artists’ Plans for Sustainability’ exhibition. This roundtable discussion explored the notion of how artistic practice could build sustainable cities, in a very active sense. Artists Nils Norman, Ion Sorvin of N55 and Carolyn Deby demonstrated how material objects could help create resilience in the face of Twenty-first century challenges. Objects presented included movable dwellings, bicycles that ferried around portable gardens and bus shelters that doubled-up as allotments. This wasn’t arts for sustainability as much as a presentation of art as sustainability.
The next event, at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, specifically focused on ‘Future Climate Dialogues’. During the day, a series of academics and educators took to the stage to explain how art could be used to share information, influence emotional response and incite action on Climate Change. Presenters spoke of anthropomorphising bees, of the role of film in encouraging pro-environmental behaviours, and the use of artistic methods to engage wider audiences, for example, through presenting scientific data as information-graphics. A prominent narrative being that where traditional science communication was lacking, the arts might yet come to the rescue.
The final event was the first in a series of AHRC funded workshops, delivered by academics from Cardiff and Aberystwyth Universities. Creative self-expression led dialogue throughout the morning sessions. Artistic performances brought the natural world into the lecture theatre – as artists evoked senses of nature. The afternoon sessions saw the group unpick the meanings behind terminology through a ‘world café’ style discussion. Conversation centred around the terms ‘sustainability’, ‘homing’ and ‘aesthetics’, as people from different disciplines and practices recognised and attempted to reconcile differing ways of seeing.
These three events revealed the sheer diversity of approaches to arts-science and arts-social science collaborations, while also underlining the fact that art as a practice, makes a valid autonomous contribution to building a sustainable society.
Finally, as a non-artist but as someone who loves creative expression, I was particularly inspired by Ion Sorvin’s comments, during the Warwick Roundtable, on the open source movement and its potential to enhance every individual’s creative capacity in extraordinary ways. As Picasso said ‘every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once (s)he grows up’. Perhaps then rediscovering of our ability to work with our hands offers hope for the future yet.
Ria is a Research Assistant at the Sustainable Places Institute, where her research centres on cultural change for sustainability.