Sustainability Art Prize 2018

The concept of sustainability is often used as though its meaning would be self-evident, yet as it has become so commonplace, its meaning has become more fluid, ambiguous and difficult to define. The term has evolved considerably, but a good rounding up of the essence of sustainability was made by Margolin as long ago as 2005, who suggested that the strategy for sustainability is 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.

For many, it is the ambiguity in which the term is used that is the biggest problem. The concept of sustainability has become successful because it is so attractive to so many people, but as so many people have very different ideas of what it actually is, the consensus begins to break down. For example, Bonnet (2004) suggests that the goal of sustainability is never the problem, but the methods used to reach it can be problematic. The three main reasons Bonnet gives for this are semantic, ethical, and epistemological. The semantic reason relates to the notion that societies are likely to interpret sustainability in ways that are best fitting 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. The ethical reason relates to the debate and uncertainty about what society’s stance should be towards nature and the environment. Bonnet suggests that our views towards nature and the environment reveal many fundamental questions such as ‘what constitutes a proper relationship with Nature?’ and goes on to point out that ‘there is good argument for sustainability to adopt either more anthropocentric or bio-centric angles’ with both viewpoints, once again, generally contradicting the other. Finally, Bonnet proposes that 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.

Considering the complexities of defining sustainability within a political context, it is of no surprise that there is an equal level of complexity in defining sustainability within the artistic practices. The Sustainability Art Prize, a yearly competition open to all students of the Cambridge School of Art, has become a space in which these complexities are explored through diverse artistic practices and provides the students with the opportunity to engage and expand the conversation and debates surrounding ideas related to sustainability.

For this Sustainability Art Prize 2018, students have addressed the topic from a multiplicity of angles and the works produced for the exhibition speak of the scope, connections and complexities of the issues at hand. The students have produced an exciting array of illustrations with meaningful messages, arresting photographs, impressive sculptures, videos, video games, exquisite installations and touching sound works, which when put together as a group exhibition, speak of sustainability’s big predicament: to respond to multiple and complex questions we need multiple and complex answers.

Marina Velez, curator.