Catalyst: Reimagining Sustainability With And Through Fine Art

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Copyright 2016 by the author(s). Published here under license by the Resilience Alliance.Connelly, A., S. C. Guy, T. Edward Wainwright, W. Weileder, and M. Wilde. 2016. Catalyst: reimagining sustainability with andthrough fine art. Ecology and Society 21(4):21., part of a Special Feature on Reconciling Art and Science for SustainabilityCatalyst: reimagining sustainability with and through fine artAngela Connelly 1, Simon C. Guy 2, Dr. Edward Wainwright 3, Wolfgang Weileder 4 and Marianne Wilde 4ABSTRACT. How might we begin to explore the concept of the “sustainable city” in a world often characterized as dynamic, fluid,and contested? Debates about the sustainable city are too often dominated by a technological discourse conducted among professionalexperts, but this technocratic framing is open to challenge. For some critics, sustainability is a meaningless notion, yet for others itssemantic pliability opens up discursive spaces through which to explore interconnections across time, space, and scale. Thus, whileenacting sustainability in policy and practice is an arduous task, we can productively ask how cultural imaginations might be stirredand shaken to make sustainability accessible to a wider public who might join the conversation. What role, we ask, can and should thearts play in wider debates about sustainability in the city today? We explore a coproduced artwork in the northeast of England in orderto explain how practice-led research methods were put into dialogue with the social sciences to activate new perspectives on the politics,aesthetics, and practices of sustainability. The case is presented to argue that creative material experimentations can be used as an activeresearch inquiry through which ideas can be tested without knowing predefined means or ends. The case shows how such creativityacts as a catalyst to engage a heterogeneous mix of actors in the redefinition of urban spaces, juxtaposing past and present, with theephemeral and the (seemingly) durable.Key Words: coproduction; interdisciplinarity; practice-led research; sustainability; urbanINTRODUCTIONWe need, in short, to examine the way in which new materialitiesinfluence the cultural constructions we place on the environment(Redclift 2005:225).Action toward resilient and sustainable ways of living has beenslow as carbon emissions continue to rise (Folke et al. 2005). Itwas, after all, only in 2015 that a global action plan to keepemissions reductions below 2 C was agreed upon at Conferenceof Parties (COP) 21 in Paris. We are also urged to adapt tochanging climatic conditions and to become more resilient, whichimplies radical changes to urban forms (Carter et al. 2015). Muchof the discussion takes place with a “consensus” that “theenvironment is best understood and studied as a social-ecologicalsystem” and that research should be conducted through thecollaboration of a variety of disciplines (Collins et al. 2010).Even though multidisciplinarity is recognized as crucial inaddressing issues related to climate change, long-standingdisciplinary divides remain. There are also deep culturaldifferences and entrenched practices, which mean that transitionsto sustainable and resilient futures will be far from smooth andstraightforward (Borgstrom et al. 2006, Davoudi 2009). Part ofthe issue is that ideas such as sustainability, resilience, and climatechange are not easily translated from science to policy sincelanguage has a cultural dimension (Kagan 2011) and they arecontested concepts (Guy 2010, Pelling 2010). Facts and figuresare important to the debates but can often fail to win the heartsand minds of people. This has led Bill McKibben, anenvironmental teacher and activist, to ask, “We can register whatis happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can weregister it [climate change] in our imaginations, the most sensitiveof all our devices?” (McKibben 2005). Such cultural aspectsunderscore the need for an arts and humanities perspective toexplore and communicate climate change. Engagement with otherdisciplines may also lead to innovation within science, as it is1argued that engagement with a type of creativity that is centralto the arts may catalyze scientific insights (Scheffer et al. 2015).There is a long tradition of artists exploring environmentalconcerns (Thornes 2008); however, there has been a recentburgeoning of art–science practices that use art to understandhow science engages with the wider world and to communicatescientific issues such as climate change (Yusoff and Gabrys 2011,Vervoort et al. 2014). Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, forexample, did much to popularize climate science through themedium of film in 2006. Meanwhile, art exhibitions have tried toconvey complex, scientific ideas; the Arts Catalyst, a UK-basedart–science commissioning body, has been in existence for morethan 20 years and has sponsored a number of projects that exploreideas around the Global Commons ( Prior research testifies to the ability of cultural forms tocommunicate complex scientific ideas (Curtis et al. 2012) and toassist in underpinning environmental planning (Guy et al. 2015).With respect to climate change, however, “good science goodcommunication peace” may be too simplistic, as Mike Hulme(2013:276) observed over the joint award of the 2007 Nobel PeacePrize to the IPCC and Al Gore. As noted, art and culture can beimportant in shaping responses to climate change. However, whenappropriated into other disciplines, art is too often positioned atthe end of a process, in order to give legitimation to regenerationprojects, for example (Miles 2015). Using art instrumentally tocommunicate science should, consequently, be approached withcaution. Art and art criticism have evolved with internal practicesand concerns with respect to appreciation and intent. Moreover,art can be used as a tool to provoke issues. It is a disservice torelegate art to an emasculated role as the communicator of sciencesince art does not just represent the world “as it is”; rather, artcan criticize, challenge, and disturb social conventions (Demos2013).Manchester Architecture Research Centre, The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK, 2Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, LancasterUniversity, Lancaster, UK, 3School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, 4Fine Art, School ofArts and Cultures, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Ecology and Society 21(4): 1/Fig. 1. View of Dunston Staiths, situated on the River Tyne in the northeast of England. (Source: Authors)In common with scientists, artists are also often portrayed ascreative geniuses, but this viewpoint may hamper working acrossdisciplinary divides. However, art can also be considered to beinherently collaborative. Artists are set within networks ofproduction and consumption that require a whole set of materialsand other actors to bring a work of art into being (Becker 1982,Rubio 2012). In some ways, an artist’s work is not so far removedfrom the scientist (de la Fuente 2007, Palsson et al. 2013). Thereis often a laboratory setting (the “studio”) where materials aretested and reworked, and where artistic practice is regarded as aseries of experiments with uncertain outcomes.We intend to show how creative thinking can be harnessed insocial-ecological research. We begin from a premise in the designliterature that “the best or only way to shed light on a proposition,a principle, a material, a process or a function is to attempt toconstruct something, or to enact something, calculated to explore,embody or test it” (Archer 1995, as cited in Rust et al. 2007:10).Our main aim was to put fine art practices into productivedialogue with the social sciences, and to show how the methodsin fine art may bring prescient insights into social-ecologicaltransformations. We conclude by arguing that incorporating artsand humanities perspectives into projects can refine and developfurther research questions (Palsson et al. 2013) as well as createnew, shared spaces where different futures (and pasts) can beimagined.METHODSThe 15-month “Jetty” project was led by Wolfgang Weileder, aGerman-born sculptor, who worked in collaboration with fine artresearchers and social scientists. The research protocol proceededwith a creative degree of uncertainty: a public artwork would beproduced, but there was no fixed idea about the artwork’s finalform. Jointly constructed research questions explored mutualinterests in the deployment of sustainability as an idea, as follows:. How far can a temporary public artwork act as a catalystfor debates about sustainability and instigate furtherdialogue between diverse stakeholders?. What is the range of sustainability concerns mobilized inthese debates, and why?. In what new ways can public art animate communityinvolvement, in advancing or exploring sustainabilityissues?. What is the potential legacy and impact of temporary artisticinterventions in the context of sustainability?We used the notion of a “breaching experiment” fromethnomethodology where social conventions are analyzedthrough staging experiments that contravene established practices—by queue jumping in a society that privileges ordered queues,for example (see Lynch and Peyrot 1992). The Jetty project aimedto disrupt the visual gaze by developing an artwork that respondedto a specific site. The intention of such disruptive acts is to “slowdown” ongoing processes in order to prompt moments ofcontemplation that question the otherwise taken for granted(Stengers 2008:40). Disruptive acts can thus allow the space fordeeper deliberation in a way that invites many more actors intothat reflective space.The chosen site to explore these questions played to a variety ofconcerns related to sustainability. Dunston Staiths, located inGateshead in the northeast of England, is a structure formerlyassociated with the coal industry (Fig. 1). At 521 m long, DunstonStaiths, comprised of 98 cross-braced wooden frames, snakes outfrom the shore into the River Tyne. Coal from the nearby Durhamcoalfields was transported by rail and off-loaded from DunstonStaiths to moored ships that were berthed on either side of thestructure. Dunston Staiths was decommissioned in 1981 followingthe demise of the UK coal industry but soon became protectedby heritage designations. Yet, the structure languished withouthuman use, and nature began to take over (Durham WildlifeServices 2013). A number of protected bird species now roostthere during the winter, while the tidal basin has developed intomudflats—a rare habitat in the northeast of England. However,human disuse led to an unexplained fire in 2003 that destroyed20% of Dunston Staiths. The resultant gap in the middle of thestructure means that the birds now prefer to roost in the isolatedeastern end of the site. This is a highly resilient structure, and atthe time of the art project, was to be “rescued” with a significantrepair grant.The wider area is interesting in terms of social, environmental,and economic change. Gateshead has been in transition since theearly twentieth century, and its history permitted an explorationof gradual social-ecological change. Postindustrial decline in thelatter half of the twentieth century led to the need for much socialand environmental regeneration. Immediately adjacent to the site,which once housed gasworks and factories, an award-winningsustainable housing development has been in construction since2006 (IDP Partnership Group 2015). Just beyond the new housingdevelopment are areas considered to be in the top 10% of the mostdeprived places in England (Gateshead Council 2015).

Ecology and Society 21(4): 1/To begin, the history of the surrounding areas was investigated.Local and national archives gave an insight into the effects ofDunston Staiths’ development and decommissioning on theimmediate area. Grey literature and policy documents developedthe important strand of Dunston Staiths’ conservation andecological histories. Taken together, the review enabled anidentification of stakeholders who were connected to the site overtime. Subsequently, interviews (19) and workshops (3) were heldamong local design and policy professionals as well as residentsin the immediate vicinity. The interviews and workshops providedan understanding of how sustainability was imagined in thesecommunities and what their aspirations were for the site in lightof the interviewees’ memories and experiences. Additionally,conversations between the fine art and the social science teamtook place on a monthly basis throughout the research activitiesand were recorded and analyzed along with the interviews Aquadyne (, which ismade from recycled plastics that are often deemed to beunrecyclable and normally go to landfill or incineration (Fig. 3).Aquadyne is typically used in sustainable drainage systems, andcan be found in parts of the London 2012 Olympic site, forFig. 2. View of Cone on top of Dunston Staiths, August 2014.(Source: Authors)RESULTSThree proposals emerged from the artist’s studio. The first twodirectly addressed the large gap that had been created in DunstonStaiths following a fire. The intention was to symbolically connectthe two sides of the structure to make it, literally, sustainable intothe future. The first proposal intended to fill Dunston Staiths’ gapwith scaffolding, thus acting as a temporary repair to the site andto show the potential of what renewal may imply for the structure.Known as “Bridge”, the piece was not built because of practicalreasons. The amount of scaffolding needed was estimated at aweight of 140 tonnes, and structural engineers had difficultysurveying the site. With so much uncertainty over DunstonStaiths’ properties, th