"Art Among Sustainability, Ecology, Economics". My foreword translated into English

Italiano E' online (parte 1 e 2) la versione inglese della mia introduzione alla mostra "Art can save us (probably)" (Udine, 4 aprile - 19 maggio 2012), pubblicata in italiano sulla rivista di arte e cultura contemporanea D'Ars. Di seguito il testo in inglese.
EnglishIt is online (part 1 and 2) the English version of my foreword to the exhibition "Art can save us (probably)" (Udine, April 4 to May 19, 2012), published in Italian in the contemporary art and culture magazine D'Ars. Hereafter the English text.

Visions and Passions

 

Art Among Sustainability, Ecology, Economics
by Pier Luigi Capucci

Over the past four decades people engaged in a profound reflection on the relationship between man and the environment, on resource consumption and the impact of our species on other species and the environment. This growing awareness regarding the understanding of the natural dynamics together with its related crucial responsibilities have deeply affected, and are still affecting, our culture and our lives. From a general point of view this is embedded within a wider process of relativization, an inescapable historical, cultural, evolutional path, which, on the one hand, pushes human beings further “into” the rest of the living world but, on the other hand, confronts them with questions, choices and responsabilities, thus shaping a new awareness which seems to set a line of discontinuity with the past.  Copernicus and Darwin, in particular, provided a good contribution to this process. Copernicus removed man from the centre of the universe, although he was still the chosen creature on Earth, the first and highest among the living. Three centuries later, Darwin went further into relativization by depriving our species of its privileged position on the Earth at the top of the pyramid. Like all other living beings, mankind did not result from a sudden and supernatural act but from a long evolutionary and tormented process and a self-fulfilling “project without a designer". All living beings, including human beings, were not created as they are today and they are not fixed and immutable; they actually evolved from a remote group of common primeval organisms and this process started about 3.8 billion years ago. Nature as "a system of matter in motion managed by precise laws, which can be explained by reasoning, without resorting to supernatural entity" [1]  has, therefore, a story, an evolution that is still ongoing.

This relativization process was emphasized by disciplines as genetics. Every individual, whatever the species to which s/he belongs, is unique though all individuals are in a way pervaded by the same matter and the same processes. "Many discoveries have brought to light the incredible unity of living beings. The fundamental processes and mechanisms that control them are essentially the same in all species. It turned out, for example, that to make a sturgeon, a frog, a mouse or a man the programmed and coordinated action of a number of developmental genes is  required, which the animals of all these species have in common and which are also in the genetic heritage of insects and shellfish." [2]  In our genes there are genes of many other species, even of viruses, organisms at the base of life which may be considered as a genuine "pollinators of evolution". The difficulties in scientific pursuits on the methods used to differentiate species and the discussions on the concept of species emphasize this unity.

[This unity/relativization is proven, much more universally, even at the elementary level of matter. Recent research on the matter of which the universe is made showed that "up to half of the baryons currently contained in galaxies in the local universe is passed in the intergalactic medium at least once, and often several times. The baryons making up our body have taken part in this cycle for nearly 14 billion years; the matter of one of our nails may have originated inside the stars from other galaxies and could have spent billions of years of exile in the intergalactic space before reaching the solar system. We are only an ephemeral phase, a temporary host for this rare material that we define 'normal'." [3]]

Sustainability and ecology

Over the past four decades, environmental issues have permeated even our common lexicon. Among the most well-known terms, we find "sustainability", which comes from ecology and was first introduced by the Brundtland Report [4], released by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. The Report actually introduced the concept of “sustainable development”. To give a definition of "sustainability" is not an easy task, because it is an umbrella term with meanings related to different fields, sometimes contradictory. In the Brundtland Report “sustainable development” is defined as a development “which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Beyond the obvious anthropocentric limitation of this definition, "sustainable development" contains two questionable elements. First of all, nature is seen as a functional element, subject to human activity, hence a tamed and harmless, predictable and controllable, "good" and "beautiful", sweetened and blatant nature that should be eternally relegated by our culture to a sort of contemporary Arcadia, promoted by the media, where the term “natural” is a must when it comes to selling goods without questioning its real meaning. However, this obtusely anthropocentric nature is largely false: nature is often uncontrollable, unmanageable, divergent, indomitable... Certainly, we are anthropocentric because we look at the world from a human perspective. Starting from the 1980s, several academic disciplines, such as the biology of knowledge [5], have shown that our mind is what it is because it is "embedded" in our body and the two cannot be separated. Our body is therefore the only perspective we are entitled to, the horizon of the events projected by the human eye. However, this should not prevent us from recognizing the other as a species and as an environment, but also, more generally, as otherness, and from being confronted with it under some kind of natural contract [6] that does not just take into account human interests.

Environmentalism pursues the goal of a habitat where life is preserved but it specifically looks for an environment which enables human survival. Accordingly, criticism to anthropocentrism leads to a situation where what went out through the door finally comes back in through the window. In this context, the implicit and recurring opposition between "human" and "natural" should be reviewed, as if humanity was not to be called "nature" in the same way as any other animal or plant species. Therefore, since the Paleolithic, a part of nature, not something external has been acting from within on the mechanisms of nature itself and has been using its resources in a growing and uncontrolled way, leaving a heavy footprint on the planet. Technologies are a tool, completely natural, adopted by humanity to extend its capabilities, in a process of growth and acceleration started in the Paleolithic period which opposed and guided natural selection with regard to our species. To limit the consequences of that impact or to put right damages, we will need more rather than less technologies in the future.

Perhaps a more general point of view would be useful, although less popular: according to the Gaia theory by James Lovelock, Earth would be a single living organism, able to self-regulate and to respond to everything that disturbs its balance [7]. In such a system, human presence is not determinant, nor required. Finally, we close the relativistic chapter by mentioning a study released a few years ago, suggesting a further evolution of the environment after the disappearance of the human species from the face of the Earth [8].

Sustainability and economy

The second problematic aspect of "sustainable development" mentioned by the Brundtland Report is the economic dimension. The expression actually includes the idea of "development", understood primarily as economic growth. In essence, it means that human culture and economy have a tendency to continuous growth but at the same time exploitation processes and available resources are optimized. The global and the regional dimension are not envisaged in this expression; as regards the global dimension, planetary resources are not endless and thus a "sustainable development" may not be an absolute or eternal mantra, while as far as the regional dimension is concerned, today it has become evident that not all world economies can follow the same trajectory. Despite what the media want to make us believe, recovery and a new development after the current economic crisis of the Western World are not a foregone conclusion. We might also have to face a change of paradigm, whereby our culture would give way to other cultures and economies. Discussions about "sustainable development" and "sustainable growth" or "sustainable economy" might appear as a mere exercise in style in times of economic crisis, recession and survival.

It is the quantitative dimension that is in crisis, together with the idea of abundance, accumulation (of resources, finances, material goods and so on) and the illusion of continued growth and the false belief that everyone would benefit from it. For many western economies, quantity is no longer sufficient, not even in terms of production, since it is no longer possible to withstand the impact of quantity-oriented economies based on two-thirds of the world's population. In our small world, the quantity-oriented economy is apparently giving way to a more complex and comprehensive quality-oriented economy, which is not based on the accumulation of material wealth, on the impersonality of money and on financial greed but rather on people and their real capacities, on responsible and long-term decisions, on reciprocity, on the willingness to share knowledge. In this context, it is important to imagine the future and be able to adapt to it, encouraging a more conscious planning, which must be global and regional, general and contingent, learned and collaborative, and where other people and their differences are taken into account. Rediscovering, knowing and valuing differences has always been a value. The driving force of the world is “diversity” rather than “uniformity” and diversity can be seen in information, culture, biology, genetics, creativity, sexuality and so on. And in art, as a deviation from the norm.

Art can save us (probably)

Sustainability also means copying nature and its dynamics. The living was and is the model of representation and art, but also the model of an increasing number of artifacts, machines and devices with growing complexity which have to adapt to the contexts, overcome the difficulties of the environment in which they operate, interact with innovations and contingencies, survive to damages, errors or defects, defend themselves against aggression... The living is the best model of these artifacts because it has an "experience" of the world – namely a knowledge – accumulated in approximately 4 billion years of evolution, because the living has been confronted with the phenomenal world since its very first moment of existence.

Anja Puntari's and her various collaborator’s exhibition gives an ambitious response to the economic, ecologic and cultural hardhips of our time by stating that  "art can save us (probably)". As a matter of fact, the rejection of schemes, alternative thinking, the diverging route, the alternative reflection, the unusual solution, syncretism, powerful lightness, the relativity of the economic dimension, freedom and independence, the attention to the new and so on… have always been rooted in the genes of art. Art can succeed where other disciplines fail: phenomena such as the turbulent chaos of human interactions, markets dynamics, global communication processes, the syncretism of cultures, but also the theories of physics, the mathematics of chaos, the complexity of many natural phenomena related to ecology appear to be close to the artistic dynamics and process. Today it is difficult to understand and describe the complexity of the world without triggering artistic attitudes and approaches. Art is a kind of contemporary philosophy, a crucial resource to understand the present and look to the future.

"Art can save us (probably)" brings together art, game, passion, vision, the concept of gift, lightness, Open Source, potlach... and also demonstrates the quality of cooperation, the problems and the potential of authorship in use, the benefits of sharing, the strength of partnership to achieve common goals. In a famous statement about the relationship between art and science, Roy Ascott argued that "we must not wonder what science can do for art, but what art can do for science" [9]. Similarly "Art can save us (probably)" wants to overthrow the traditional relationship between art and economy: today we should not ask what the economy can do for art, but what art can do for the economy, for the ecology. This is also “another" way of thinking, a free, divergent and disruptive way of thinking. An artistic thinking.

Notes

1. Francisco J. Ayala, cit. in Gary Stix, “L’eredità di Darwin”, Le Scienze, n. 486, 2009, p. 40. [back]
2. Edoardo Boncinelli, “La genetica dell’evoluzione”, Le Scienze, cit., p. 50. [back]
3. James E. Geach, “Le galassie perdute”, Le Scienze, n. 515, 2011, p. 49. In particle physics the baryons are a family of particles. The most well known baryons are the protons and neutrons which make up most of the mass of the visible matter in the universe. [back]
4. The Brundtland Report is downloadable from this page: http://tinyurl.com/ce9sm6f. [back]
5. Humberto Maturana, Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Boston, Shambhala Press, 1987. [back]
6. Michel Serres, Le contrat naturel, Paris, François Bourin, 1990. [back]
7. James Lovelock, Gaia. A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979. [back]
8. Alan Weisman, “Una Terra senza umani”, Le Scienze, vol. 469, 2007, pp. 50-55. [back]
9. Roy Ascott, speech at the conference “The Spirit of Discovery: Art, Science and New Technology”, Transcoso, Portugal, 18-20 may 2006. Speech slides on: http://www.risco.pt/WordPress-pdf/Ascott.Trancoso2006.pdf. [back]