This is the second of two posts on the event Cardiff Philosophy Cafe helped run at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 14 June, as part of the Environmental Futures Dialogue project. Here, we look at the Cafe event held on the afternoon of the 14th, and the questions that it raised (see also Dr Ria Dunkley’s piece on the Cardiff Sustainable Places Institute blog and Prof. Karen Henwood’s account at the EFD website.).

Participants included the artists who had spoken in the morning session, as well as a variety of other attendees from the arts and academia. The session began with the identification of three concepts that might serve to focus discussion. The first of these were ‘aesthetics’ and ‘sustainability’ – with an accompanying question: given that ‘sustainability’ is an idea that comes from outside artistic practice, does the relationship between the two necessarily become one where art becomes merely ‘accountable’ to sustainability, and is pressed to produce objects and performances that will capture hearts and minds for a pre-defined notion of sustainability (e.g. ‘sustainable development’). Does the relationship between art and sustainability end up being one of art and artists being exploited for external purposes?

Environmental Futures Dialogue
Environmental Futures Dialogue

The third concept for discussion was the novel concept of ‘homing’ – activities that constitute ‘being at home’ – and therefore perhaps connote feelings like security, confidence, connectedness – in the midst of change and facing an uncertain future. Part of the uncertainty here lies in the suspicion that the stories our societies have become used to telling themselves about the future – narratives of social and technological progress, for example – may not be true after all. Can we still ‘be at home’ in such a situation, when some of the basic anchor points for our beliefs about the future have come adrift? Is there a contradiction between the local and the global within the idea of ‘being at home’? Do we need to achieve a closer relation to the places we inhabit, or do we need to be cosmopolitans?

Following the Cafe’s small group segment, the group reconvened within the Arts Centre’s circular upstairs studio for plenary discussion. Rather than being an external imperative that threatens to dominate artistic practice, sustainability was widely seen as closely-connected to art – returning here to the morning’s key theme of art as a way of exploring other ways of living, new modes of connection to the world, as in effect a companion to philosophy in asking (and perhaps answering) the question ‘how shall we live?’

How can you tell if something is ‘sustainable’? How is art to do with ‘sustainability’ different from any other art?

For something to be sustainable it must always change. What is an aesthetic of change?

Contrast between sustainability and development – economic growth is often viewed as development, but is it sustainable?

Must ‘being sustainable’ mean ‘restriction’?

One of the ways in which art does this, it was suggested, was through probing and seeking to overcome states of disconnection from the world and from one’s own individual life and the lives of others. Disconnection, a number of audience members suggested, is a condition which cuts against sustainability and to which aesthetic practice – if we understand ‘aesthetics’ in relation to its Greek root as practices that produce feelings and emotions – might be a response. ‘Mindfulness’ was another concept introduced by the audience here. Unsustainable lives are disconnected, fragmented lives, with attention pulled in different directions.

Making evolution and adaptation a conscious process. Encouraging creativity as a way to get back in touch with ourselves, to re-home.

Art can be a mindful practice: My art must use sustainable inputs/materials sustainability. And, I must encourage others to practice art

Does this imply, though, that artists do what they do because there is involved in aesthetic practices some kind of cultivation of empathic or other, related, capabilities? Joseph Beuys’ remark that ‘everyone is an artist’ was seen by one participant as having two meanings: on the one hand, that whatever anyone does is creative (which is false), and on the other, that if certain capacities are used in doing even everyday activities, then this transforms even mundane activities into creative ones. The latter implies that artists have cultivated these capacities and that, while everyone can become an artist given certain kinds of encounters, experiences and opportunities, not everyone is an artist by default. This distinction, it was pointed out, goes back to Friedrich Schiller’s distinction between aesthetics as the study of the order and logic of our sensual relationship with the world, and aesthetics as the autonomous realm of activity in which artists and the skilled appreciators of their work engage. Others suggested, relating the discussion to Siriol Joyner’s performance in the morning session, that art is a form of thought, a form of structured engagement with the world. If this is so, it was suggested, then there can be no essential duality of trained and untrained forms of such engagement.

The significance of empathy – 1st person science- subjective ways of knowing and learning.

Disconnection and connection as themes also drove discussion of the idea of ‘homing’. It was suggested that home is not a place, but a practice, one of being comfortable within the world that, particularly within a Welsh context implies a relationship to landscape and the ‘outside’ rather than just the domus, particular places (‘insides’) over which one has control and perhaps legal ownership rights (relating home as domus to other related Latin terms such as dominus and the Roman tradition of property law). Homing, one participant suggested, was a matter of journeying and expanding one’s ‘habitat’, and of cultivating responsibility – or rather, ‘response-ability’, the capacity to feel and response to difference, to encounters in which features of the world to which one is not accustomed might be overlooked.

Despite the attraction some participants felt to the cosmopolitan imagery of journeying, attachment was nonetheless seen as a vital element in ‘being at home’. Once again, disconnection and fragmentation were again invoked here as a condition to which art might provide a response: corporate branding aims to create emotional attachments that encourage frenetic and distracted consumption. Art may perhaps provide the means of counteracting such fragmenting processes of attachment by activating better (more ‘sustainable’?) forms of attachment. One relationship between a locality to which one is attached and the global had earlier been provided by Jony Easterby’s description of his model of practice as the creation of specific sites as the basis for developing template approaches for wider use.

Overall, although nothing like a consensus statement on the relationship between art and sustainability could be said to have emerged – and significant points of dissensus were evident over the role and status of the artist, and the relationship between attachment and the global or cosmopolitan dimension of ‘homing’ – it was interesting to see the theme of art conceptualised as a ‘counter-ethics’ continually near the surface of debate. Art was seen by many participants as, in different ways, providing new ways of engaging with the world that encourage ‘new subjectivities’, new ways of experiencing the world and of imagining what is possible for human beings. Rather than exploring scenarios about or images of the future, art may bring the future into the present in a different way – by creating places and practices where life is lived differently, more mindfully, more connectedly.

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