Dreaming sustainability, realising utopia: ‘convergence’ and ‘divergence’ in art and design practice
conference contributionposted on 28.07.2015, 13:23 by Robert G. HarlandRobert G. Harland, Maria Cecilia Loschiavo dos Santos, Gillian Whiteley
Throughout the twentieth century, the disciplines and practices of artists and designers were convergent and divergent in the way they developed similar ideas identified now with sustainability. Whilst under early modernism, artists concerned themselves with the retention of ‘aura’ (Benjamin  2008), designers released this in pursuit of reproduction. Consequently, designers discarded individuality for commonality, and old for new in the guise of economic and technological advancement, whereas artists concerned themselves with cultural artefacts. Both had social impact. The designer’s grasp of systems thinking and reproductive methods as ‘social systems’ (Nelson and Stolterman 2012) set against the modernist artist’s preference for the oneoff characterized different motivations. Subsequently, in the second half of the twentieth century design became closely associated with the mass-production and promotion of products, but subsequently became implicated in consumer culture and the massive problem of waste (Walker 2014). Design’s deviation towards ‘wicked’ problem solving on a global scale – often to improve social and economic well-being – before the challenge of sustainability came to light, sits in contrast to art’s concern for individuality. There are a few exceptions. In 2004, in Beyond Green, Stephanie Smith brought together a series of sustainable art and design projects – such as the Learning Group’s Collecting System - arguing that the convergence of these two strands can provide rich opportunities to rethink approaches to environmental questions, as both shared a goal of bringing social and aesthetic concerns together with environmental and economic ones (Smith 2006). Yet, when systematic approaches to the problem of waste are discussed in terms of integrated sustainable waste management frameworks, the potential contribution of artistic strategies and methodologies is absent and the opportunity for an expanded view of design to readdress concerns is overlooked. Are we to assume it to be buried in the socio-cultural aspects of environmental and contextual concerns? Or is it also related to the financial/economical, technical, environmental/public health, institutional, and policy/legal aspects of waste management frameworks? This paper makes explicit the potential for specific socially-engaged art practices to contribute to a waste discourse about re-purpose, re-use and appropriation. We also challenge notions that design as a product of modernist twentieth-century thinking emanating from early modern art practice is devoid of re-use, by positioning ‘practical meaning’ as a paradox of scale and context.
- The Arts, English and Drama