Next month in July, Cardiff Philosophy Cafe will be running two events as part of the Future for Wales series, examining the next of our ‘keywords’, creativity. We will be examining how confronting an uncertain future – which has been the theme of all our sessions this year – is not just an intellectual exercise. It is also an emotional experience, one which can give rise to feelings of anxiety, dread or hope – depending on a variety of aspects of how we face the future. In July, we will examined the use of creativity and imagination as tools for dealing with these aspects of our contemporary situation. How can we think through the complex ethical and political issues surrounding sustainability, our use of energy, democracy, our relationship to nature, well-being and work without falling prey to anxiety and even despair?
These two events will be running in collaboration with Environmental Futures Dialogue (EFD), a Cardiff University project which brings artists, social scientists, and environmental thinkers together to explore the contribution that art practice and aesthetic ideas can make to envisioning and shaping a sustainable future. As part of the preparation for the July events, the Cafe went to Aberystwyth Arts Centre on the 14th of June to run a special cafe event as part of the EFD programme of work. This post and the next one examine the questions raised by the event.
The day consisted of two sessions. In the morning, talks by invited artists about the relationship between what they do and sustainability were followed by a panel and audience discussion. In the afternoon, a Philosophy Cafe event was held to look in more detail at the relationship between what art can do and what the idea and reality of sustainability, as shaped in collaboration with artists, might mean, and how far this might differ from standard ideas about sustainability encountered in environmental science and public policy. In particular, it aimed to explore whether an ‘aesthetics of sustainability’ might be possible and what it might look like.
The first speaker, Jony Easterby, introduced several examples of his work with a quotation from Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall’s This is the American Earth (1960), in which is envisioned a way of living that recognises natural ‘laws, dynamics, balance’ and creates ‘a civilisation in harmony with the earth’. He described his art practice as centring on biodiversity, and as proceeding by integrating creative interventions with landscapes as much historical as natural. One aim of this approach, he stated, was to create in particular sites examples of work that could be translated into models of habitat creation that could be transferred to other sites.
Jony’s first example was Enclosure Rites, situated on Knapton Brow in North Yorkshire. The construction of a reflecting pool and enclosing site on agricultural land uncovered Bronze age burial mounds in the process. Next he went on to describe work at the Maesteg Washery north of Port Talbot in South Wales, contributing to the regeneration of land contaminated by decades of coal washing and spoil dumping, resulting in highly unusual conditions (pyritic soil, high levels of acidification). Here, the creation of a pastoral, recreation-focused site out of the transformations wrought by heave industry was seen as also an act of stewardship or of care necessary to restore to nature at the site an autonomy that had been removed by the creation of extreme conditions – the balance Adams and Newhall wrote about tipped too far one way.
Using stone from Pontardawe and oak fence posts from local woodlands, 300 trees were also planted, and transient wetlands created by excavating spoil (later used for paths). Jony described how, after its completion, the site had gradually become reinhabited as a place of play for adults and children.
The next speaker, Jane Lloyd Francis, described two bodies of work, the first with the Equilibre Theatre, which develops site-specific performance working with horses. The second was an exploration of hidden Welsh wells, reaching as Jane put it below the surface of ancient places to uncover unmapped, lost wells along pilgrimage routes and elsewhere. She gave examples of discoveries at Ffynhonnel, where a local holy well dedicated to St Cadfach had been uncovered; of a healing well at Ffynnon Llanfachreth, of a well beneath a 20th century trunk road at Tre-taliesin, and an ancient village well at Ffynnon Llanwrin. These sites evoke ancient anchors for communities, quilting points of attachment for the people who lived there and whos daily and/or spiritual lives were closely connected to them. Quoting Diane Ackerman’s book, A Natural History of the Senses (1991), Jane noted that the senses are not just a means of connecting to the world around us, but a way of reaching back in time, that the immemorial past is accessible to us through the emotional resonances afforded by particular places that evoke the connection between communities and landscapes, such as wells and other places with water. She asked: ‘how can sensory engagement allow ancient resonances to emerge?’
A dance and spoken word performance by Siriol Joyner dealt with this them of connection once again, presenting dance not as an attempt to establish a relationship to nature, a kind of return through the body to the natural world, but simply as ‘being in’ nature, being at home in movement. The spoken word portion of her performance played with the relationship between the body and communication in speech and language, with the activities of walking and dancing described as freeing language for initiating new contact with others and shaping new ways of ‘being at home’ in the world.
A subsequent dance piece, performed by Simon Whitehead, also accompanied by Siriol, was described by Simon as having its roots in walks undertaken from home to studio in Abercych, West Wales, and the sounds of rooks and other birds that accompanied the journey. Performed in tandem by both dancers, the piece evoked animal behaviour, but also gestures of creating and shaping, examples of being in the world that add richness and difference to it.
Following this, a panel discussion was convened and chaired by Dr Carl Lavery (Aberystwyth, and member of the EFD project) featuring Jane Lloyd Francis, Jony Easterby, Siriol Joyner, and other invited discussants Jayne Archer (Aberystwyth), Richard Downing (Aberystwyth), Reuben Knutzen, Matt Jarvis (Trinity St David), and Dr Ria Dunkley from the EFD project.
A key theme that emerged from the discussion was how art can reshape subjectivity by opening up new ways of experiencing the world. Richard suggested that Simon and Siriol’s performance showed how this kind of process is a matter of ‘learning from place’, of reconnecting to a world form which we are disconnected by many of our routines and conscious activities. He proposed that an aesthetics of sustainability could draw attention to the intimate connections that drive such processes.
Jony referred to everyday examples of ‘mindful mindlessness’ (e.g. weeding or building a fence) of repetitive action as playing a similar role by creating a space within the activities of the conscious mind for making new connections between ideas and phenomena, similar in this sense to ‘liminal states’ between waking and sleeping. Matt talked of the need to place attention on the body as a fertile catalyst for the mind, while Siriol went further in affirming that physical movement is itself thinking and communication, is a form of relation, not simply an occasion for forming such relations. Carl invoked the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s concept of the material imagination in relation to Jayne’s presentation as a way of understanding how meaning grows from sensuous encounters.
The question of art’s relation to time was also raised. Sustainability, as a theme, is typically discussed in relation to futurity – but art avoids the kind of approach taken in, say, scenario planning, where the possible content of the future is simply represented textually or in images. Jayne Archer suggested that artistic practices of the kinds presented in the morning session proceed more obliquely than this, delving into the past in order to imagine and perform what might be possible ways of being in the future, thus making available new resources for the imagination and for thought, feeding into ways of thinking more explicitly about sustainability. Jayne invoked in this connection the Renaissance view of reading as, literally, ‘re-creation’, a process of remoulding the self through an aesthetic relationship with the world mediated by literary language in various forms.
Discussion returned again to aesthetics as a way of thinking about connection to the world, and the aesthetics of sustainability as thinking about particular ways of learning from the world. The relationship between the kinds of presentation undertaken within artistic practice and in natural or social-scientific research on sustainability was the subject of a question from the audience, regarding how first-person experience can be made sense of in ways that might have intellectual authority and validity within research on sustainability. Ria suggested that sustainability implies, at the level of individual lives, active creativity rather than passive consumption (mending, growing, making) therefore the practices and work of artists perhaps gains the status of exemplars that offer new possibilities for how to live a creative life that is open to the future, adaptable, perhaps even resilient.
Overall, the themes explored in the morning session suggest a strong link between art and philosophy, insofar as both are activities that respond to the question ‘how shall we live?’. In the next post, we look at how the Philosophy Café session held in the afternoon of the 14th returned to these themes and extended discussion, looking also at the concept of ‘homing’, central to the EFD research project.