Because conceptual art can exist in non-material forms, one could argue that it is not only one of the most sustainable forms of creative practice, but also one of the most radical in its potential to challenge conventional thinking. To a tremendous extent, commercial media—whose primary function is to persuade its audience to consume—influences current prevailing thought. Conceptual art, by contrast, is often non-commodifiable; the value of an idea can supersede conventional methods of quantification, lending it a subtle, subversive, status-quo-defying kind of power.
The notion that all ecosystems, cultures, disciplines and systems are interconnected, and that we can cultivate a more efficient, healthy and satisfying existence by appreciating more and consuming less, run counter to the mainstream. In spite of the relentless promotion of the consumer mindset, one can find ample evidence of the tremendous human impulse to freely share and exchange information and other commodities simply by perusing the internet (the most culture-altering, wisdom-liberating development since Gutenberg introduced moveable type to Europe in 1439). Practical knowledge—including instructions on permaculture design, DIY, open source and appropriate technologies, petitions and calls for political and social action—is disseminated free of charge by those who, knowingly or not, describe a new social paradigm based on reciprocity, fair exchange and mutual benefit.
German artist/activist Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986) believed that when individuals contribute to the betterment of society by infusing everyday actions with creativity and reverence for nature then “everyone is an artist.” He considered the fruits of such labor “social sculpture.”
I didn’t know about Beuys when I first set out to combine art and science by seeking a degree in marine biology, then going on to study scientific illustration. As the detrimental effects of reckless human activity on the environment have become all the more obvious, my urge to express the intangible, profound mysteries contained in the natural world has intensified. My technical renderings have morphed into multimedia “philosoprops,” works that challenge conventional boundaries between disciplines and spark dialog around social, political and ecological topics. While most of these pieces have a physical component, their essence is really the ideas behind them—and these are free for the taking.
For example, the concept behind my sonic fabric—a textile woven from cassette tape overdubbed with intricate collages of sound—alludes to the ultimate interconnectedness of everything. While I wholeheartedly embrace opportunities to repurpose materials, sonic fabric was not intended as a statement about recycling, per se. Rather, the project was inspired by theories in quantum physics suggesting that everything, at the most basic level, is composed of little more than vibration. When all the vibrations are woven together, the result is one exquisite, unified cacophony.
Like Beuys, I believe that by cultivating a relationship with nature and by honing and engaging personal creative aptitudes, everyone can become a catalyst for social transformation. While the powers-that-be wage an insidious war on the freedom to share information, the subversive force of cooperation and exchange is vastly underestimated, even by those with the potential to wield it. Shifts in the course of our culture depend on the quality of our thoughts. Everyone is a catalyst.
Published at The Sustainability Review, April 19, 2012