‘Selecting in the new planetary humanity those characteristics that allow for its survival, removing the thin diaphragm that separates a bad mediatised advertising from the perfect exteriority that communicates only itself – this is the political task of our generation.’ (Giorgio Agamben)
Food production, energy consumption and ethical living are questions of sustainability that are as relevant for rural communities as they are for urban populations. Supermarkets, SUVs and property ladders are everyday factors in both cities and villages, which also share the problems of social deprivation and alienation. By living in the country, one cannot escape the effects of climate change, while in the city there is no escape from the effects of deforestation. In short, we’re living in an age in which the challenge of sustainability confronts us everywhere. It is telling that when contemporary artists engage with the rural context, issues of sustainability often come to the fore.
It was in 1987 in the Brundland Report, commissioned by the UN to investigate the connection between the environment and development, that the term sustainable development crystalised and was influentially defined as ‘how to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ It was however not until 1992 that sustainable development emerged as a global concept at the Rio Earth Summit, which also brought a new awareness of the division between the economic growth of the North and the developing South. Significantly ‘sustainability’ leaves out the loaded notion of ‘development’ and has much broader implications. The founding principles of the German Greens which are ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy and non-violence, are useful tools for understanding the notion of sustainability.
At the same time that the concept of sustainability appeared, a parallel development was occurring in the area of social ecology that distanced itself from deep ecology. Social ecology, as a more rational branch of environmental thought, asserts that the problems in the environment have their roots in inequalities within society, in the sense that hierarchies and oppression in society are manifested in our relationship towards the natural world. The way we exploit, degrade, pollute and do not value the natural environment is comparable to the hierarchies, divisions and oppressions that exist within human society. According to Murray Bookchin, the leading theorist of social ecology: ‘The conflicts within a divided humanity, structured around domination, inevitably lead to conflicts with nature.’ Sustainability therefore has parallels with social ecology, as they both see the problems in society and environment as interconnected.
Furthermore, radical theorist Felix Guattari brings out a third dimension to the understanding of ecological crisis. In his study The Three Ecologies, Guattari called for an ‘ethico-political articulation’ of the problem according to the principles of Ecosophy that takes into account the three ecological registers of the environment, social relations and human subjectivity. His contribution is vital precisely for bringing out, along with the more widely acknowledged environmental and social dimensions, the third element of mental ecology. Guattari argues that the structures of human subjectivity are threatened by the pollution and saturation of the unconscious, in conformity with global market forces, to the extreme of being faced with extinction. He also suggests that artists have a special position between society and the environment, as he states that the ways of operating of Ecosophy ‘will be more like those of an artist, rather than of professional psychiatrists, who are always haunted by an outmoded idea of scientificity.’
As the quest for sustainability poses a challenge to all spheres of human activity, there are also implications for contemporary art. Starting from the presumption of sustainability regarding the interconnectedness of society and environment, or social justice and ecology, sustainable art is any art form that is neither damaging to the environment nor exploitative of humans or other species. Perhaps surprisingly, it is a question of form rather than content, but in contrast to previous art historical periods, when form was a question of aesthetic value, in sustainability it is a matter of ethical values. Sustainable form could be characterised as ‘making do with enough’, and relevant artistic approaches include dematerialisation of the art object and recycling in the wider sense, where the recycling of concepts is more compelling than the simple recycling of materials. The legacy of conceptual art practice of the early 70s proves to be a renewable resource for contemporary artists.
It is perfectly possible for contemporary art to be sustainable without having a direct political or environmental message, as long as it meets the requirements of not damaging the environment and not being exploitative. Many contemporary art projects however resist the simple binary opposition between engaged and non-instrumental art, no longer so much for the sake of the ambiguity prized by the art market, but because they refuse to compromise the autonomy of art by submitting to external discourses. It is precisely the autonomy that art nurtures in society that gives art its sovereignty, or the power to be critical and explore alternatives. The singular creativity of artists puts them in a unique and increasingly recognised position to be free.
Vladimir Arkhipov’s Functioning Forms Ireland is a contemporary art project that could fulfil the criteria of sustainable form, as the artist himself does not produce any new objects, but borrows them instead, and by acknowledging the creativity of the makers, his approach may be considered non-exploitative. Arkhipov exhibits devices and inventions made by local people ranging from a tube squeezer, to goal posts and a rocking motorcycle, while the accompanying catalogue features idiosyncratic descriptions of the objects by their creators. The work subverts the mechanisms of consumerism and shows that the fulfilment of needs and desires need not be in the hands of design specialists, distant factories, and manipulative advertising, but can flow instead from individual fantasy and whim.
Artists who are genuinely anticipating a sustainable future, often turn to the past in search of old knowledges. Fernando Garcia Dory organised the first gathering of Basque shepherds in 2006, as a response to his discovery that the number of traditional shepherds in the Pyrenees had declined in a few decades from more than ten thousand to a handful. The artist aimed to enable the shepherds to overcome their personal disputes and combine to revive an age-old human occupation, which may give clues as to the possibilities of a more connected relationship to the natural world. The practice of artist Mari-Aymone Djeribi and architect Dominic Stevens significantly changed following their decision to settle in a rural area, and is based on a considered appreciation of the rural wisdom and traditions. Their work is grounded on the availability of ready solutions to ecological problems in the form of low-tech economies, community networks, and a do-it-yourself attitude to everything from house building to bread baking.
Art history and aesthetics are also confronted with the challenge of sustainability to canonical assumptions about individual authorship, the quest for novelty, and the right of art to absolute autonomy from external considerations, be they social, political or ecological. There is a sense in which pre-Kantian aesthetic theories might be understood as an old knowledge ripe for rediscovery. Here Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten’s conception of a Sensuous Knowledge pertaining to both art works and the experience of sublime nature as a way of understanding complex phenomena in their intuitive whole is clearly relevant to the contemporary discussion of art and sustainability and the search for alternatives to the partial and shallow techno-scientific approach to ecological problem solving.
Giorgo Agamben, The Coming Community  (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1993), 65.
Murray Bookchin, Remaking Society (Black Rose Books: Montreal, 1990), 72.
Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies  (Athlone Press: London, 2000), 27.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes, ‘The Art of Making Do with Enough,’ The New Art (Rachmaninoff’s: London, 2006), 104.