Can artists support transformations to sustainability?

Can artists support transformations to sustainability?

By Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat, Director General and CEO, IIASA
Speech at the Concert for a Sustainable Planet, september 2017, New York

Both science and art have a transformative power, as they are able to depict the world as it is and to imagine it as it could be. Yet, while scientists have significantly shaped the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through providing conceptual work and evidence, artists’ input in shaping the SDG discourse has been limited. Concert for a Sustainable Planet embodies an effort to strive for a new balance. Could artists support the implementation process of the SDG agenda and thus transformations to sustainability? And if so, how?

The science and arts activities at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) explore how, through a true collaboration between these two spaces, innovative answers can be found for a sustainable transformation of our societies. Through the interaction of science and arts, we seek to explore new solutions to the challenges facing humankind.

Customarily, a comparatively small segment of society enjoys traditional Western “high art.” High art has become a comfortable and pleasant pastime that provides opportunities to reflect on life, evoking familiar emotions and engaging and inspiring audiences in playful intellectual exercises. It has its value, and occupies a stable place in society. But what about the scary and the unknown? Today, a growing number of artists are challenging art forms and moving away from traditional spaces and audiences to better engage with complex global challenges. As engaged citizens, they are eager to take on the burning question of our time: How might we, as a global community, make a transformation to a sustainable lifestyle? This has led to what we have come to define as constructive art.

Constructive art doesn’t just illustrate a topic, reflect on a problem or, in the case of activist art, advocate for a particular point of view. It poses original questions that open up avenues for inquiry and aims to change perceptions, breaking negative patterns of behavior and promoting new ways of relating to humans and nonhumans. Two performances in tonight’s program will showcase how interaction between scientists and artists can foster systemic thinking and, more importantly, systemic action. Four Drifting Seasons provides an intimate and affective experience of abstract climate change data through music. This conveys the urgency of global warming without resorting to simplification or ‘crying wolf.’ Contextual Matters translates the complexity of SDG implementation into physical movement with the goal to visualize the human effort required for the SDG agenda to succeed. Meanwhile, a third piece, Musical Postcard, demonstrates how public engagement can be facilitated through this collaboration.

Constructive art engages with real-life problems through the artistic process. It breaks the old dichotomy between autonomous and applied art to make room for a novel approach where artists create autonomous spaces within the context of current global challenges. Constructive art tends to be disruptive and unconventional, but it is always strongly connected to contemporary society and concerned with making a positive change.

While the methodologies used in constructive art vary, we can identify two main approaches: First, art that engages with science to contribute to the discourse on global challenges and envision practical solutions. Second, art that engages with communities, experts, or other professionals to derive new insights about societal issues.

Within these two approaches there are five hallmarks that define constructive art: social relevance, investigation, process, constructive output, and media engagement.

There is strong evidence that out of the brain’s two processing systems — the experiential processing system, which controls survival behavior and is the source of emotions and instincts, and the analytical processing system, which controls analysis of scientific information — it is the experiential processing system that is the stronger motivator for action.

To successfully address complex global challenges, we also need to align our beliefs and values with the reality of our changing world. This deep, often challenging, internal work must be supported through individual and collective processes that embrace subjectivity, while being accountable to scientific facts. Constructive art is uniquely positioned to do that and thus to support sustainability transformations.

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