TOWARDS A DIFFERENT AESTHETIC – the Aesthetics of Sustainability





The agrarian revolution created a land-grab by those with the power to effect enclosure laws. Land continues to be stolen from indigenous people. Even the genes of plants have become commodified.

Industrialisation brought people off the land into structured and formalised living systems. Karl Marx wrote about ‘commodity fetishism', explaining that ‘people within capitalist societies find their material life organised through the medium of commodities' (which included their labour). 2007 figures reveal that more people in the world now live in cities than in the countryside.

The tragedy of capitalism is that continuous growth (to provide a return/ dividend on capital investment) is unsustainable. Capitalism has led us from industrialism to consumerism, homogenising and eroding indigenous cultures and distinct identities, and destroying the earth in the process.

People's identity has continued to change. They have drawn their identity:

  • From what/ where they come from (family, tribe, location)
  • From their attributes (longshanks, Armstrong)
  • From what they do (carpenter, nun)
  • From what they produce (steel, iron, goods)

In the consumer age, our identities are turned into data; we are classified for marketing purposes into socio-demographic segments, relating to

  • our possessions (home-owner, car-owner)
  • What we consume (shopping & leisure, clothing, energy)

Cultural Ecologist David Abram:

There was a time when humans spoke with the voice of the Earth. Our ancestors' senses were alert to messages coming to them from the wild world of nature. They were immersed in meanings—meanings that resonated in their own flesh… the genesis of language in preverbal communication between the human body and the surrounding body of nature. We are all born with this ancestral heritage, with the ability to “read” and respond to the sensuous Earth. But with the discovery and learning of written words, literate cultures lost something special—even something sacred—that had been integral to the oral traditions. With the written word, language fell silent, and we became strangers in our own land. The consequences have been drastic. Not only have our own words lost their rootedness in our embodied relationship to nature, we have used the power of disembodied words to create widespread ecological havoc. Human languages have emerged in relationship with the wider animate world, and without this connection our words lose their deep source of meaning and coherence. Regaining this connection, however, may not be so simple: it requires of us a radical reassessment of our place and role in the world.

…so many of the ways we speak in our culture continually deny the reciprocity between our senses and the rest of the sensuous world, between our bodies and the vast body of the earth. When we speak of the earth as an object, we are denying our relationship with the earth. When we speak of nature as a set of objects, rather than a community of subjects, we basically close our senses to all of the other voices that surround us. Abram, D, 1997, ‘ The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than Human World ‘.

Also he wrote in Resurgence:

OUR EXCITEMENT about the internet should not blind us to the fact that the astonishing linguistic and intellectual capacity of the human brain did not evolve in relation to the computer. Nor, of course, did it evolve in relation to the written word. Rather it evolved in relation to orally told stories. Indeed, we humans were telling each other stories for many, many millennia before we ever began writing our words down - whether on the page or on the screen.

Spoken stories were the living encyclopedias of our oral ancestors, dynamic and lyrical compendia of practical knowledge. Oral tales told on special occasions carried the secrets of how to orient in the local cosmos. Hidden in the magic adventures of their characters was precise information regarding which plants were good to eat and which were poisonous, and how to prepare certain herbs to heal cramps, or sleeplessness, or a fever. The stories carried instructions about how to construct a winter shelter, and what to do during a drought, and - more generally - how to live well in this land without destroying the land's wild vitality.

So much earthly savvy was carried in the old tales! And since there was no written medium in which to record and preserve the stories - since there were no written texts - the surrounding landscape, itself, functioned as the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger, for preserving the oral tales.”

Current concerns

"Across Europe, people are feeling a divergence between the freedom and control they have in their personal lives, and the sense of powerlessness they face against the great global challenges we face: from preventing conflict and terrorism to addressing climate change, energy insecurity, and religious extremism. They are confident about personal progress, but pessimistic about societal progress." Foreign Secretary Davis Miliband addressing a meeting in Bruges , 14 Nov 2007 .

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Humankind is as creative as it is destructive. Technological, medical and social advances, and sophisticated modes of communication and access to information, have all combined to provide the developed world with the highest material standards of life ever experienced by any generation. We have the most powerful tools to manipulate that material imaginable. We have the opportunity to use these resources in whatever way we choose.





“Wonder is the beginning of Wisdom” (Greek Proverb)

  "Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful." ( Schumacher; "Small is Beautiful")

A role for the artist is to transform wisdom into knowledge, and to ensure a knowledge of approaches, so that knowledge is not diluted by one epistemology or metatext. (Stephanie Knight)

A new convergence towards a different aesthetic needs to be tackled in two ways:

  • Protest against consumerism
  • Promote sustainability

The current paradigm needs to be challenged, and a new paradigm promoted. Both of these can be achieved through a multidisciplinary approach. The common ground needs to be established between the arts, humanities, science and technology.

Where are the points of convergence between digital/virtual narrative and human narrative?

  • Gaming ( Chernobyl )
  • Biometrics
  • Interactive narratives
  • Social networking sites
  • E-mail & texting
  • Aesthetics of the digital (phone ‘fingers')




Are we (humans) always in a liminal state – between the subliminal and the superliminal? Is that where we exist? Of the earth and the ecosphere?

People regaining their own narrative: (reading their vital signs; the X-Factor)

  • Ritual
  • Adornment
  • Peak experience (flow, epiphany, revelation, defining moment)

Consumer texture:

  • Spectacle
  • Freak
  • Ostentatious
  • Prurient
  • Passive acceptance

Producer texture (…for ‘producers', read ‘performers', ‘players', ‘participants', ‘contributors', )

  • Sense of wonderment; cusp of understanding
  • Engagement
  • Independent thought
  • Tolerance of ambiguity
  • Use of narrative

To be participants, people need to establish their cultural rights within a paradigm that supports the principles of:

social inclusion


There are examples of projects attempting to help people find a voice in the Balkans and South America ; healing & understanding - a way of reading the signs & reaching an understanding of their meanings.



Promoting the Aesthetics of Sustainability


'A Widening Field, journeys in body and imagination'is a handbook by Miranda Tufnell and Chris Chrickmay

“exploring ideas and activities concerned with widening the field in which we perceive and experience our lives, a waking up to the sensuous body, moving out of our heads and into the present moment of what is within and around us. To live ‘well' is an art that grows from how fully we perceive and inhabit our worlds, and our ability to respond creatively to what we find. The Imagination is an integral and essential part of our being.”

Prof David Byrne of Durham University proposed that:

‘…the use of narratives must be part of the repertoire of approaches used to represent complex urban systems… it is a recognition that narratives enable human actors to express the meaning that underlies their own agency as part of their account of the trajectories of places.' (Uprichard E, Byrne D, 2006, Representing complex places: a narrative approach Environment and Planning A 38(4) pp. 665 – 676)

Mark Titchner is interested in the relationship between media, advertising and power, and likes to work in close proximity to media (e.g. Channel 4). One of his first pieces used the expression ‘WHY IS THERE SOMETHING INSTEAD OF NOTHING?' (Heidegger & C&W song).In his lecture to Newcastle University, he said with irony

“our job, instead of producing, is to consume and accumulate”.
(He blagged a free slot in Times Square .) This notion was amplified by a news item at around the same time – that Umbro (makers of the England football jerseys) and the British economy was set to lose two billion pounds next summer because England hadn't qualified for the Football World Cup finals. And now in January that less consumer spending is triggering gloomy economic forecasts.


"To create symbols is to generate power. One cracker of a Kate Evans cartoon is worth fifty fussy full-length faxes. Theo, protester-songwriter, whose lyrics burn with a savage genius and a yearning eloquence, is semtex in song. Power, then, is in the hands of the singer, the piper, the artist and the symbol maker. The police, now, are coming to see this. At a Reclaim The Streets event in Brighton, the police focussed their attention on arresting and removing musicians and drummers and artists, identifying, correctly, that it is the creative elements they must stamp out, because they are the most vigorously effective. The difficulty, though, for the police, bailiffs and guards trying to stop this explosion of anarchistic Artarchy is this: the roots of the direct activists' creativity are not in schools of art but in nature's genius loci . Their profit comes not in commercial success but in the success of causes. Their energy is not the energy of artistic individualism but the atavistic energy of priests of the tribe. The source of their power is outside themselves, in the Earth energy itself and the forces of nature; these eco-artists are solar-powered and lunar-powered. These are the artists who have the moon to play for. (Griffiths, J, 1997 ‘Art as a Weapon of Protest', Resurgence Jan/Feb1997 )

A quote from my diary, following Frances McGee's lecture at N'castle Uni:

“Frances McGee had me spellbound, with an entertaining style of presentation. He outlined Open Source Ideology and how he is applying it as director of the CCA (Centre for Contemporary Arts) in Glasgow . He explained the ‘Mickey Mouse Standard', whereby the years that a copyright lasts keep on being increased to protect the Walt Disney empire. He suggests that we have become peasants, in that what ought to be the public realm is kept from us (Acts of Enclosure, I thought) unless we pay, thereby denying us our culture. Open Source Ideology challenges the commodification of knowledge. It comes from the hippies of San Francisco , when universities were supposed to be sharing knowledge freely; instead, they saw opportunities to make money from it. The thought struck me that this trait continues unchecked, with companies such as Monsanto copyrighting plant genes. OSI was a strong feature of The Grateful Dead – they encouraged taping of their gigs, thereby guaranteeing the biggest audiences. It also revitalised the career of Bob Dylan, the most bootlegged artist in the world……Frances McGee's interests are wide – he is a medical historian by training – and includes an interest in bees, which he sees as social beings using OSI … …An interesting project in which he was involved was ‘Liminal Spaces', a collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli curators for making work, holding conferences and analysing situations. It was dangerous work – collaborating with occupying forces, or building structures in military controlled areas. There was a dark humour in the situation, too. He described how Palestinians copied the red-tiled roofs of the Israeli settlements because they liked them, although the red roofs originally were meant to signify to Israeli aircraft that this was a settlement. I was reminded how natural it is for ‘unintended consequences' to occur, and how all living beings are so opportunistic; rats feeding under squirrels; buddleias growing through railway buildings, bringing in the butterflies. Is this the nature of chaos and the chaos of nature? McGee was like that too. Because he was not educated in visual art, he didn't know where the boundaries were meant to be, and found himself invited to write essays about exhibitions and artwork. He is interested in the work of Douglas Gordon (who has written a thesis on bees and stomach digestion in the 17 th Century). “There's room in the artworld to write about bees, monasteries, mushrooms, Andy Warhole and shamanic practices.”

the charcoal & the mouse

We need to be confident about fusing technologies (convergent not just with themselves).

‘Materialism simply cannot survive the transition to a sustainable world… …The necessity for art to transform its goals and become accountable in the planetary whole is incompatible with aesthetic attitudes still predicated on the late-modernist assumption that art has no “useful” role to play in the larger sphere of things'. (Gablik, S, 1991 The Re-enchantment of Art , p.7)



Source of the South Tyne (Gilbert Ward)

(“we come into this world with nothing”)

The River Tyne starts (?) from the air, where the heat of the sun has evaporated moisture, which, when cooled, is released as rain to soak back in the ground. From there it bubbles out of the fellside to begin its flow back to the sea. The sandstone carving, and its locating, symbolises the process. A fusion of technologies that stem from nothing.


More extracts from my diary:

“…It returned my thinking to the notion of nothingness, of creating and playing in an empty space, of making something from nothing. Data is nothing. Information is a string of data; a string of nothing. Knowledge, they say, is power, and so it is, because it is something that we can hold within us and also share between us. It can start just by wondering. Wonderment is a way of reaching knowledge. It's like a journey towards knowledge… …Instead of a database, build a wonderbase. Get people to use it for conversations between indigenous and travelling people, settlers and the settled. Include artefacts and lost/found objects.

Get them to speak of how connected we had to be with the natural world before the industrial age, and how we must re-learn in order to survive the post-industrial age and peak oil, only this time with the help of technological innovation and the new sphere of the virtual world.

Celebrate the best bits of their/our past cultures from the fragments that remain. Learn once more that nothingness exists and is equal to beingness, as is illustrated by light and dark, earth and air, zero and one, sound and silence. Love is all you need. Richness lies in belonging, not belongings. The recitation of genealogies is like that; a counting of the family silver. Africans in the bush thought the Scottish explorer Mungo Park was a poor man, wandering alone, without his kin…”




AN EGG IS NOT AN EGG. It is not something to be painted, sucked by grandmothers or thrown at offensive MPs. It is only, according to supermarkets, a consumer product. By the increasingly widespread practice of stamping sell-by dates on the very eggshell, eggs are symbolically reduced; their sole characteristic is their sellability. Consumerism consumes; it is a shoplifter, stealing meanings. The free range of associations of "an egg" is stolen by the eggman of consumerism. J. Griffiths, Guardian


Protest from Adbusters & the Culture Jammers Network continue to confront the packaged normality of our lives.



Navigating the Global Village

  • Making/ reading the signs;
  • Leaving/ following the spoor;
  • Re-awakening a wider understanding of the environment; working with it; permaculture;
  • agreeing a visual language to uncover more meaning; do it from a sense of wonder, with due respect and humility towards the world and its cultures.
  • Celebrating diversity, multiculturalism and human-scale creativity, ingenuity and innovation.

perhaps the meek shall inherit the earth…