Amidst all our recent business, I wrote this blog in early April and never posted it. The title is borrowed from “Art + Sustainability,” a book by Professor Sacha Kagan, keynote speaker at the I Light Symposium in Singapore.
Moving now into our twenty-third hour of air travel, we reflect on the ideas and themes of the festival we are moving away from – I Light Marina Bay, Asia’s first light art festival championing a theme of sustainability. (The irony is noted, of course, that we must travel via the prolonged burning of jet-fuel to and from said festival, but that is a way of life for artists based in the less-occupied geographic regions of North American. For now, at least).
We were fortunate to participate in the I Light Symposium somewhere in the last several days (understandings of time melting as we slip between time zones). Fortunate, because the critical meat of light art is too often lost for many artists amidst the fury of installation, exhibition, and travel. Fortunate, also, because ideas of sustainability are coming to us at a critical juncture in our career, when we are beginning to ask ourselves to choose between commercial and conceptual fields (insofar as those two things are separated), festival versus fine arts contexts (ditto), and financial sustainability in relation to sustainability of heart/idealism.
Since September 2012, we have been thrown onto an international playing field, and we must accept the credit and responsibilities that accompany the move into this territory. In the future, we will be examined, by others (curators, art critics, peers, the public) and, more importantly, by ourselves. How can we create art sustainably? And how can our art, in humble ways, play into notions of sustainability?
Please note, that this blog, consciously and unconsciously, may reference ideas raised by various panelists involved in the I Light Symposium, the first few chapters of a book written by Prof. Sacha Kagan entitled “Art and Sustainability: Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity,” as well as ideas brought forward by ourselves, as a collaborative team and as individuals. Proper credit will be given whenever possible.
Sustainability is irrevocably tied to an obsession with “The Future.” This is a poignant concern in a city/country like Singapore, where 5-and-a-bit million people occupy an island, and must anticipate the future of a growing population within a finite space. (Interestingly, the location of the festival – Marina Bay – is man-made land, all re-claimed from the sea by entrepreneurs and corporate entities with a focused vision of one potential future).
Above images: Singapore’s various characteristic splendors, as we saw them. Art, architecture, and awesome bicycles.
According to Prof. Kagan, traditional sustainability is broken into three pillars: social, environmental, and economic. His writings and lectures focus on a fourth pillar – Cultural Sustainability. This is contributed to by Art, amongst other things.
There are several thoughts around art as a contributor to sustainability. The most tangible, perhaps, is creating art using sustainable materials and processes (ie. using recycled materials, local labour, low-carbon footprint processes, etc). The other is less immediate. It involves exploring concepts of sustainability less overtly or literally, and more as “pure” and sometimes utopian ideas.
When characterizing CLOUD within a context of sustainability, Wayne and I struggled with various contradictions. Despite using partially recycled materials when creating the first CLOUD (burnt out light bulbs, scrap yard steel), we’ve always been hesitant to qualify the work as any sort of environmental statement. Our initial motivation for using re-appropriated materials were primarily financial, aesthetic, and social – it was a cheap and accessible way of creating a diverse aesthetic for a large-scale sculpture. It created a community surrounding the sculpture via crowd-sourcing materials from friends, strangers, and local organizations.
In the end, we fell in love with the history of the objects, the marks of their past in different domestic settings. We were heavily influenced by the much more sustainable works of Calgary-based artists Lane Shordee (who creates giant, beautiful sculptures out of dumpster-dove materials and thrift-store finds, recycling everything from the screws holding wood together, to the sawdust from his saw). We have created other projects, much more directly tied to ideas of sustainability (or unsustainability, perhaps), notably The House Project, WRECK CITY, and PHANTOM WING. But when I Light Marina Bay asked us to consider CLOUD within the frame of sustainability, we were being asked to acknowledge other, also present characteristics and concepts of the work.
Typically, when we consider sustainability, it is in relation to ourselves as artists (lower income people, making large public things with an emphasis on collaboration, collectivity, and community). Art-making needs to be a sustainable path for us, financially, but also through other value-systems (the less tangible things that charge our batteries, stoke our enthusiasm, and convince us to pursue the dream). Showing our work needs to be a sustainable system (how do we create opportunities for ourselves? How do we meet deadlines? How can we continue to grow, change, and re-invigorate our practice as collaborators, friends, and individuals?) The administrative and organizational factors of being full-time artists influences this conversation (boring and invisible necessities like e-mailing, scheduling shipping, customs, visas, taxes, etc). The list goes on! – Our relationships with our contributors and community needs to be sustainable, our relationship with our City and each City we visit, our relationship with each other as autonomous human beings, etc…
As we dissected CLOUD specifically, connections with sustainability that emerged were surprisingly less to do with physical and material connections (burnt out light bulbs, brand new LED technologies, etc) and more to do with ideas of compound action, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, and human connections promoted by the piece.
Art + Sustainability speaks about the changing relationship between human beings and our environment over the past few centuries, about our disassociation with the natural world, and about the sciences championing logic above intuitive connections. Technology has allowed us great advancement, while forming undeniable hubris. In some ways, we are outsmarting ourselves, propelling ourselves rapidly towards our own extinction. Logic alone won’t help us now. But collective action might.
An icon for hope and optimism, CLOUD speaks to the analog and collective social powers of community. The strangers beneath CLOUD, pulling switches, seldom realize the changes they’re creating on the exterior of the structure. It’s only when observant people recognize the potential of lights turning on and off and begin to solicit help from the people around them, collectively manipulating the sculpture, that “big change” happens.
This becomes a metaphor for sustainable action, and for the unstoppable momentum of collective thought. This idea is mirrored by the materiality of CLOUD – each bulb on its own means nothing, but when multiplied 6,000 times, a new understanding forms. Lastly, in forming the first sculpture, each “garbage” bulb collected to from the community posed a tiny question – “What else could this be used for?” and subsequently “what makes garbage unusable? How can we challenge this notion?” Compounded by each bulb contributed, these questions are gently reflected by the sculpture itself.
In his lecture at the i Light Symposium, Prof. Sacha Kagan spoke of “art as a verb for sustainability and transformation.” He spoke about the “experiential process” of interacting with art being “collectively challenging for participants.” He spoke of art as a transformative experience promoting yearning, subverting understandings, encouraging experimentation, and creating empowerment. In Singapore, these concepts were palpable, and we are grateful for their influence, now and in The Future.