Art and Sustainability | Halfway review


Art and Sustainability | Halfway review

duurzaamheid art and sustainability
Source: screenshot from


From epistemology to ontology

The 20th century brought about two important movements, which distinguish themselves in the perception of reality and human/nature/value relationships. While modernism believes in human progress and cognition, postmodernism rejects the constructed ideologies and objective truth. The reality is perceived as something that is present even without humans realizing it or not. Humans, the possessors of knowledge, are taken away from the top of the hierarchical ladder and the positivist view of reality is replaced by relativism. Instead of defining the world, postmodern artists incline towards the questions of What is the world like? What should be or should not be done in it? Should there be any should? Based on the postmodern aesthetics the study of sustainability has been born. The term sustainability first appeared in the 80s reflecting the urgent need to deal with the consequences of an increasingly globalised world. It questions citizens’ and, speaking of art and sustainability, also artists’ accountability.

Contemporary artists are commentators of global issues. They manifest the urgency to combat the current system of global governance that leads us towards worrying about environmental challenges. As well as, they spurn our attention to other global issues which directly link to environmental concerns. The art and creative industry have its importance in promoting sustainable principles, encouraging humans to critical thinking, questioning, disagreeing and challenging our status quo. Artists set an example of manifestos on what needs to be sustained and what we need to withstand. 

Three perspectives

When approaching the topic of sustainability in relation to artistic practices, some curators, e.g. Maja and Reuben Fowkes (‘Renewing the curatorial refrain: Sustainable research in contemporary art’, in Curating research, 2015), state that artists and curators must take into consideration all three registers of ecology as they are proposed by Félix Guattari. In his book The Three Ecologies (1989), Guattari sets a direction in considering ecology from three different angles – environmental, social and mental. According to him, ecology covers a protection of the environment which is being threatened and of society which is being exploited. Further, he suggests that human relations deteriorate and we are losing the otherness or, as Guattari describes, the ‘singularity’. The compression of our Selves results in collective homogeneity and decease of human interventions. Sustaining our mental awareness is thus the same important as sustaining the environment and society. He argues that ‘now more than ever, nature can not be separated from culture’ (p.43). We are an ecology and must find a way to unify and to stay diverse at the same time.

Artists presented in the project #sea_youhere can be also divided into three particular groups. Some incline towards environmental topics – they are trying to understand natural phenomena, their mission is to raise awareness, or to undertake scientific research on topics such as climate change, non-human bodies, extinction, and species biodiversity. The second group of artists investigates the survival of communities – their mission is to resist the violence against humanity and to build up the commons. The last group deals with mental sustentation, well-being, and freedom.

Sustain and resist

Here at SEA Foundation, we ask how do artists relate their practice to sustainability? What does a sustainable practice look like? Surely, there is not only one example. We are aware that art production in the age of Anthropocene is challenged differently across the Global North and the South as we are reminded in the chapter The Art and Politics of Sustainability (in Decolonizing Nature, ed. by T. J. Demos, 2016) or in the essay Indigenizing the Anthropocene by Zoe Todd (in Art in the Anthropocene, ed. by H. Davis and E. Turpin, 2015). The question of accountability that the politics of sustainability rises moves within diverse cultures, knowledge systems, and non-human bodies. 

In Dutch the word sustainability “duurzaamheid” can be translated as well as durability. With such meaning, sustainability can be explained as an ability to sustain conditions for future generations without harming the ecosystems and as an ability to resist the time

The production of the art industry became troublesome in itself. Materials are manufactured, the artworks are packed and transported between exhibition places, artists travel to symposiums and vernissages, and, if they are to be included within the contemporary art scene they are expected to consistently perform well. On the other hand, many crafts and traditional art processes are disappearing, the integrity and continuity of art are endangered. While we can calculate what the negative impact is of an artist’s activity on the environment, it is more difficult to judge what it brings to society and our intellect.

Via the project #sea_youhere 2.0 we research the theme of art and sustainability and present artists whose mission is to sustain the values against their distortion but also to resist invasions of injustice towards the planet, species, communities and, last but not least, our own spirit. 

Research platform

Recently, we recognize the shift in artistic practice towards the surge of fieldwork, artistic research and post-studio practices. Instead of the constant production of physical artworks, many artists focus on participatory art, on awakening receptivity of humans towards the natural phenomena, and on using the methods which help to trigger humanity. The key words become togetherness, empathy, responsibility, happiness, solidarity, exploration, awakening, knowledge, reimagining and similar. Altogether, such practices present the example of perspectives which stimulate sustainability sustainably. 

We set up an account at the platform. It is a visual tool where content of any kind can be uploaded and shared with the community. We upload sources with relation to the theme of art and sustainability which inspire and educate from video talks, essays, books, links and visuals. We include websites of #sea_youhere artists. Their diverse approaches to the theme are an inspiration to investigate sustainability from many angles.

Find out more about the project #sea_youhere 2.0 here