The concept of sustainability is complex, multilayered and presents questions for which there are no single answers. Sustainability is defined by Victor Margolin as a set of strategies to promote both ‘harmony among human beings’ and ‘environmental justice for harmony between humanity and nature’. Sustainability, essentially, should promise to meld both anthropocentric and biocentric ideals into one well-rounded solution; a very big ask.
Semantically, societies are likely to interpret sustainability in ways that best fit with dominant ideologies. In capitalist societies the term ‘sustainable development’ is often applied in the context of a sustainable economy and economic growth, something which is often at loggerheads with more environmentally minded definitions.
Ethically, views towards nature and the environment reveal the fundamental question of what constitutes a proper relationship with Nature. The answer could encapsulate either arguments for sustainability to adopt either more anthropocentric or biocentric angles; with each viewpoint generally contradicting the other.
Serious epistemological questions are raised as a result of our lack of knowledge regarding the complexity, and spatial/temporal dimensions of both natural and social systems. How we construct, interpret and value knowledge is of vital importance as to how we are to judge what actions take a positive step towards sustainable development.
The Sustainability Art Prize
The Sustainability Art Prize, a yearly pedagogical competition which started in 2012, is open to all students of the Cambridge School of Art and the Cambridge School of Creative Industries. It provides a space in which the complexities of sustainability can be explored through diverse artistic practices and facilitates opportunities to engage and expand the conversation and debates surrounding ideas related to sustainability.
The knowledges and research created through artistic practices can offer the plasticity and adaptability that is required to approach such complex issues and, as Donna Haraway suggests, to 'stay with the trouble'. This is precisely the area in which sustainability and art advance research: the area of trouble. In the artistic research it is necessary to embrace trouble, uncertainty and risk, which places the art practices in a privileged position to engage with the wider conversation about sustainability, to confront the challenges, to question injustices and to explore difficult solutions to difficult problems.
With climate change and the sixth mass extinction accelerating, the participant students in the Sustainability Art Prize have addressed such difficult issues through their practices using a diversity of media and creative methodologies. From rising sea water levels to species extinction and deforestation, plastic pollution or biodiversity loss, they have created work that talk about the complexity and interconnectedness of sustainability, knowing that what affects one part of life on earth will affect all.
Marina Velez, curator
Sustainability Art Prize 2020 is financially supported by Anglia Ruskin University's Arts Council