Library of Creative Sustainability: New USA-based Case Studies

18th November 2019

We've just launched a new set of Library of Creative Sustainability case studies, looking at four different US-based examples of projects that make use of the arts to achieve sustainability goals. We're using this as an opportunity to think a bit about what we can learn from arts and environmentalism in the USA and how this relates to the situation for us in Scotland.

The new case studies

The four new case studies look at:

  • City as Living Laboratory: an NGO that aims to promote environmental awareness and sustainable development in cities through collaborative artist-led projects.
  • Natural Resources Defense Council Artist in Residence: An artist residency run by an environmental campaigning organisation that uses art as a means of developing strategies and engaging the public in new ways.
  • Recycled Artist in Residence: a scheme organised by a waste management and recycling company that provides artists with the opportunity to produce work using or in response to the waste materials that arrive on site.
  • Maintenance Art: The fourth article looks at the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ earlier pioneering work in environmental, socially aware art practices that arguably prepared the ground for the other three projects discussed.
Maintenance Art 5

Mierle Laderman Ukeles in conversation with a New York Sanitation Department employee

What can we learn from them?

Firstly, these projects demonstrate the varying roles that artists can have within organisations and projects. Although two of the schemes are described as residencies, they are really rather different. Recycled Artist in Residence provides resources that allow artists to pursue their own distinct projects while the Natural Resources Defense Council integrates an artist fully into their operation, giving them a role in determining the direction of the organisation. City as Living Laboratory by contrast is artist-led and partners with various organisations to share expertise and develop projects.

Secondly, these projects maximise the potential of artists by providing them with time and resources as well as including them from an early stage of organisation. As a result the creative input from artists is able to shape the direction of projects themselves as well as providing the means of communication.

Thirdly, art invites different forms of interaction and engagement that might not be possible otherwise. The individual artistic projects that form part of City as Living Laboratory’s larger schemes provide opportunities to get thoughts from communities that can feed back into wider goals, while the work that Jenny Kendler undertook with the Natural Resources Defense Council allowed them to access and involve members of the public in new ways, reaching new audiences. Art can be a highly valuable method for crossing the barrier between institutions and members of the public.

Finally, connections and collaborations are essential. Ukeles had plenty of ideas on how to produce art that engaged with ‘maintenance’ but no resources to work with. The New York Sanitation Department was carrying out a lot of work in this area but had no means of communicating about it. The symbiotic artist-institution collaboration thus allowed them to fulfil each others needs. This is true of all four case studies. The flexible skills and working practices of artists make them particularly suited to these kinds of collaborative relationships.

Natural Resources Defense Council Artist in Residence 1

Jenny Kendler with her Milkweed Dispersal Balloons

How does this compare to Scotland?

There are clearly important differences between the US and Scottish contexts. The most obvious one is scale. The size of cities in Scotland would likely invite different responses to those created by City as Living Laboratory in response to American cities for example. Scottish projects would also have to deal with more historic cities with different types of urban planning and potentially older infrastructure to contend with, which would raise new issues and provoke alternative approaches.

To some extent the Scottish environment bares similarity with the US. For example, issues around population being split highly unevenly between dense urban areas (the American east coast, the Central Belt) and sparse rural areas (the Midwest, the Highlands) could be comparable.

On the other hand, the changes in climate that Scotland will see over the coming years (increased rainfall, more extreme temperatures) are different from those that the US will face (water shortages, extreme weather events), and there is no real US equivalent to Scotland’s island communities and the particular environmental issues associated with them. While Jenny Kendler’s project with the Natural Resources Defense Council was concerned with Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed, the flora and fauna that are essential to protect in Scotland are quite different and would require different solutions. Similarly, Scotland’s extensive coastline, peatlands, and moors provide ecosystems that require their own unique solutions.

There is perhaps a longer tradition of embedded artist projects in the US, but this is not to say that Scotland is entirely lacking in older precedents (see our Glenrothes Town Artist article for an example of this). Nevertheless, there is arguably more need for the development of institutions around this kind of practice in Scotland than in the US, with embedded artists in environmental projects, notwithstanding exceptions like Climate Ready Clyde, being relatively rare .

This inevitably raises questions about differences in funding  but these new case studies seem to reiterate the same problems as we find here in Scotland. Namely, the difficulty of funding projects that straddle the divide between arts and sustainability and  issues with the extended timescales that embedded artist projects tend to require.

In essence, these case studies provide good models to work from, but there is no single approach that works in all circumstances. Applying the methods that these organisations have employed in Scotland must involve careful thinking about how they could work when applied to different urban and rural environments, different ecosystems, and different institutional structures.

 

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We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.


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