As both an artist and a researcher, I am interested in how and to what extent the creative arts are incorporated into the environmental design of buildings, landscapes and interiors which are likely to shape future human communities. I am also interested in the extent to which creative spaces for performances, exhibitions and screenings are included in these designs. The role the environmental arts play in these spaces is particularly important, since they have the added advantage of bringing natural environments, or representations of natural environments and related subjects, to urban populations who are often alienated from the environments themselves.
Dalby Forest Visitor Centre, an eco-build in North Yorkshire, Courtesy of Build it Green
The greater integration of creative art works and creative arts spaces into eco-designed landscapes, buildings and interiors will bring the following crucial benefits:
1: An Infusion of Culture
We are in urgent need of human-designed environments that not only provide economical and technical solutions to problems of resources but which are more broadly nurturing of stable and thriving human communities. Artistic works and activities that are integrated into our surroundings and into our daily lives have the potential to bring cultural richness as well as aesthetics to the environments which will nurture future generations. It is inclusion and participation in a shared cultural life that leads to both social cohesion and individual fulfilment.
All human beings need a creative outlet through which they can express their individual personality. Young people in particular are vulnerable to dogmatism, dissipation and extremist ideologies when they are denied this kind of freedom because of material poverty, poverty of opportunity or oppression. When the environments in which we develop are infused with the arts, they are infused with language, ideas, and examples from personal and collective histories and story-telling, which are the only means we possess for understanding and communicating with one another and expressing ourselves, our thoughts, our angst and our dreams in the most fulfilling ways.
While science enables us to aspire to knowledge of the deepest physical truths about ourselves and the universe, and allows us to use this knowledge to manipulate the world in our interests, the arts enable us to aspire to excellence in the human-made realm of the moral, the imagined and the philosophical, which gives us our sense of meaning, purpose and identity.
“Block der Frauen” (Women’s Protest) in the Holocaust memorial park of the old Jewish quarter of Berlin by the East German sculptor, Ingeborg Hunzinger, Photo credit: Florida Center for Instructional Technology
2: The Cross-Fertilisation of Ideas
Bringing the arts into the arena of daily life, especially into the workplace with its technical challenges, creates ideal conditions for mutual inspiration and knowledge exchange across boundaries of disciplines and notably across the art-science divide. The messages and ideas conveyed by the works themselves, and the discussions they stimulate, increase the potential for non-linear thinking and therefore for innovation.
Bringing together excellent science with its focus on objective fact and artistic reflection with its ethical insight and ability to make new connections, is now more widely accepted as essential for the long-term reputation, inventiveness and adaptability of businesses and institutions. The reflective nature of the arts can play a particularly important role in controversial areas of research and industry, where there are broader ethical implications and where better public understanding and accurate media reporting are essential.
This explains why many organisations including are already investing considerable sums of money in collaborative projects and events in order to get artists and professionals in other fields working together more effectively. For example, the Met Office HQ in Exeter is an ecologically designed building which contains environmental art works that are meant to encourage employees to reflect on, promote and debate the activities of the Met Office through exploring the inter-relationships between art and science. The Met Office has worked with Ginkgo Projects (an independent art and design consultancy) since 2002, with the view that effective commissioning of the arts will contribute to the creation of a positive working environment that encourages innovation. Phillip Mabe, Chair of the Art Project Board (2004) stated “We have found the works are challenging, introspective, humorous or simply beautiful; together, they provide an intuitive insight into the delicate relationships that bind us to our environment.”
Met Office, Exeter
Blue Ascending, Green Descending, Alex Beleschenko, 2004
Automated Observations (detail) Wenyon and Gamble, 2003. Photo credit: Public Art Online
3: Benefits for Human Well-being
Experiencing and participating in the arts has been repeatedly shown to have physical, psychological and social benefits. It would seem a no-brainer given that they help keep both our bodies and our minds active and constructively engaged and also provide a medium for social interaction. The arts also help us to express difficult emotions that are hard to articulate or awkward to reveal in a more direct manner, which is why art therapy is such a popular form of psychotherapy, particularly with children.
For these benefits alone a more comprehensive integration of art works and practices into private and public spaces would be a worthwhile investment. It would also seem sensible to include more spaces and activities that explicitly promote the improvement of health such as quiet zones for mindfulness meditation, ‘temple’ rooms which are especially light, airy and expansive, and well-being or sensory gardens. The need of hospitals, hospices, care homes, prisons and rehabilitation and community centres is perhaps the most acute. This is of course an ever growing area of research and experimentation and presents innumerable opportunities for art-science collaboration.
The need to sustain a healthy and content work force is another reason why employers are increasingly investing in cross-disciplinary projects. However, many are only beginning to understand just how great a role our working and living environments have to play in our over-all wellbeing and therefore in how effective we are at our work.
James and Paula Coburn Wellness Garden, Courtesy of Sitescapes Landscape, Architecture and Planning
4: Motivating through Experience
The creative arts have a power and subtlety in conveying important messages that need to reach and motivate us at a deeper level than rational argument. For example, where climate change and social justice are concerned, it is now widely acknowledged that simply trying to scare people into changing their opinions and lifestyles with alarming facts and linear arguments has very little effect. On the other hand, an immersive and moving experience that takes us on a journey revealing the intricacies and degree to which we are interdependent through the parallel stories of real people is likely to leave a more lasting impression and lead to real changes in our behaviour. It is this kind of experience that artists of all genres have the power to create.
Unlike activists, artists have the luxury of exploring the nuances of a subject, prompting reflection on difficult questions, such as what we mean by ‘sustainable’ and how we determine what should and should not be conserved, or what constitutes a ‘fair society’. They provide safe spaces to explore new perspectives and question received beliefs and practices, and therefore help to shape and re-shape wider cultural values. By facilitating reflection and dialogue, they can lead us to a new consensus and resolution to do what is necessary for the survival and well-being of our species and the planet.
The first image above is from Erin Brockovich, a 2000 biographical film directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Susannah Grant, which is a dramatization of the true story of Erin Brockovich, portrayed by Julia Roberts, who fought against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). The second image is from WALL-E a 2008 American computer-animated science-fiction comedy film produced by Pixar and released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by Andrew Stanton, it follows a robot named WALL-E, who is designed to clean up an abandoned, waste-covered Earth far in the future.
5: Educating through Encounter
An infusion of the arts which convey our history and knowledge in original and exciting ways is of course of great educational value, and not just in the obvious places such as schools, colleges and universities. To give an example, encounters in public and private living spaces with natural environments such as gardens or living installations, or with artistic explorations of these environments in photography, sculpture, film, theatre, dance, creative writing or any other artistic medium, have the potential to educate increasingly urban populations on the value of our natural environments. They can reveal how such environments maintain the vital ecosystems upon which we and other creatures depend, and how they provide us, not only with resources such as water and food, but with the biodiversity of genes and compounds required for crop and human resistance to pathogens and for medicines such as anti-biotics. They can also demonstrate how natural environments contribute to our general well-being, including our states of mind and our enjoyment of culture – they have after all been the scenes and settings of so many of our human dramas.
The arts can educate us by bringing home the uncomfortable truths about what we have done to our environments, as illustrated by the picture of children playing in filthy water (below), or by inspiring us to work towards a healthier vision of our future, as illustrated by Callebaut’s designs for a future eco-city. They can communicate multiple facts and alternative perspectives with an immediacy and impact that could never be achieved by a report. Experiencing a work of art is like meeting a person; you see many characteristics at first encounter and are compelled to discover more about why they are as they are and what can be learnt from them.
Ecological Designs by Vincent Callebaut, for the ‘Flavours Orchard’ project in the city of Kunming in the Yunnan Province, China, courtesy of Vincent Callebaut Architectures
Children sitting on a makeshift raft play in a river full of rubbish in a slum area of Jakarta. Photo credit: Enny Nuraheni/Reuters
It is for all these reasons that I believe creative artists should play a far greater role in the environmental design of the buildings, landscapes and interiors where future generations will live and move, and of course this will mean working in close collaboration with research, industry and culture sector partners. We need to make sure that imaginative and effective spaces for performances, exhibitions and screenings are included in designs as well as ensuring that we have a more direct influence through the incorporation of art works into the structures themselves.
I hope this article has begun to persuade you that as artists, we have a vital role to play in helping to create the human-designed environments of the future. Experiencing and participating in artistic creativity has positive effects on both individuals and communities; on educational and cultural enrichment, innovation, social cohesion, and general well-being. The creative arts, especially the environmental arts, are essential for creating environments that nurture informed, stable and thriving human communities, which are therefore ultimately more sustainable.
Anastasia Somerville-Wong is a poet and researcher at the University of Exeter, currently working on a series of film-poems for The Poetry of Places Project