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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

November-December 2009

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Editors' Picks - November/December 2009

Bridging Art and Science for Sustainability
Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation, Action, University of Houston, 26–29 March 2009, http://soshouston.org

In his landmark 1959 Rede Lecture in London, scientist and novelist C.P. Snow asserted that the communication breakdown between the “two cultures” of modern society—the sciences and the humanities—was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems. Nearly 50 years later, universities are taking early formal steps toward bridging this gap, using the interdisciplinary concept of sustainability as common ground. One example of this effort is the recent three-day event “Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation, Action,” also known as S.O.S. and S.O.S. Houston, sponsored by the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and the campus Blaffer Gallery. The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) and the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange participated in the planning and implementation of S.O.S.


Described as “part arts festival, part academic symposium,” S.O.S explored a variety of venues and methods for a public dialogue on the complexity of modernity and the notion of sustainability, offering performances, presentations, art installations, art-science-citizen dialogues, and artist-led explorations of the Houston cityscape. The event resulted in an ongoing resource for science and arts communities at http://soshouston.org, which includes information, videos, and updates on S.O.S.


The most unique of the S.O.S. activities were “Community Tea Times,” two-hour gatherings of artists, scientists, and self-selected citizens convened in the Blaffer Gallery against the backdrop of a stunning multi-media visual and sound exhibition by artists from the Center for Land Use Interpretation titled “Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry.” The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange created engaging, dramatic, and humorous mini-performances for the gallery setting, which can be viewed on the Web site, immersing the arriving tea-time guests in a cloak of surprise. The facilitated tea-time conversations engaged participants in themes of place, transitions, and imagined futures. This carefully planned and innovative blending of very diverse experiences and perspectives yielded processes of inquiry and discovery that seldom arise in classroom, professional, or community meetings.


S.O.S. presentations and panel discussions varied widely—with titles as diverse as “Research and Environs,” “Poetics and Performance: Art in Public Spaces,” and “Society and Community”—as would be expected for a transdisciplinary dialogue that is only just emerging. The eco-arts movement was well represented with numerous presentations, installations, and performances reflecting on sense of place, changing environments, and the role and meaning of urban nature. Both scientists and artists named complexity, resilience, and adaptation as critical elements of sustainability. The human dimensions of sustainability were also present in panel discussions on past and present movements of people and nature in response to climate, conflict, and economic forces.


The closing performance of “red, black, and GREEN: a blues,” available on the Web site, featured Marc Bamuthi Joseph, artistic director of the Living Word Project. The Living Word Project looks to have, as an end result, a series of performative nonfiction essays in which the ethos of revolution, color consciousness, or racism are deconstructed as the result of historical facts, rather than inherent or implicit conditions of the human temperament. His performance was an inspiring contribution to addressing issues of enhancing America's social capital, perhaps the most complex element of sustainability.


S.O.S. reinforced the notion that further integration of the two cultures may be crucial to the understanding of sustainability. Scientists still view sustainability as primarily a technocratic challenge. Artists and humanists more often view the world as shaped by subjective beliefs and actions. Their depiction of sustainability issues is organic, evolving, and indeterminate. The S.O.S. participants agreed that the transition to sustainability is about both perspectives. There is no “either, or.” Down the road, we must address all these issues.


Robert  Harriss
Houston Advanced Research Center,
   The Woodlands, TX
   
 

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