[This discussion is the conclusion of a series of talks: Environmental Aesthetics and Everyday Life; Beyond Biocentricity in Design & Pedagogy; and Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial]
Paula Gaetano Adi: So I’m going to invite Nick to actually start a conversation instead of doing it myself, and then we’re going to open up to the public.
Nicholas Pevzner: Okay. Thank you so much. Thank you Damian and [inaudible] for bringing us all together. Thank you very much Paula. And thank you all three for incredible, thought-provoking presentation.
So, I have just a couple of thoughts that I had about the topic of aesthetics, and this provocation that the panel introduction lays out I think is a critical one for for today.
So Yuriko, in your Everyday Aesthetics book, you note that the way that we expose the narrowness of the kind of typical aesthetics is by adopting a multicultural global viewpoint, and that shows off the narrowness of then what is the dominant mode. And this in many ways is similar to the conversation that’s been happening in science fiction with the kind of marginalization of non-white imaginaries. And so I think it’s fantastic to hear Priscilla’s examples of Chicano and generally non-white futurisms and imaginaries and this question of what is the future, what is the present, what is the past I think is essential.
And it’s similar with aesthetic agendas that you know, to see the kind of Western consumerist white bias of normative aesthetics we need to provide alternatives, and so I think this panel does that by exposing the wide range that could be possible.
So, in Yuriko’s book we have a couple of other examples of everyday aesthetics. You write that things could be dreary, plain-looking, nondescript, even disgusting. And that’s a counterpoint to the kind of aestheticization and romantization that we typically think of when we think of aesthetics.
To me this brings to mind another sci-fi writer, Octavia Butler, who in her dystopian Parable series describes a kind of dirty aesthetic. For the working poor in her dystopian future, being dirty is a way of not getting robbed. It’s a way of not getting beat up at school. So kids get dirty before they go outside the wire. So perhaps certainly it’s Butler’s experience as a person of color in a predominantly white male space that informs her thinking on aesthetics here.
And so we have also a similar example from Daniel Barber this morning, who offers us this idea of discomfort and how we start to design within discomfort, which is fantastic.
But maybe I can just offer a couple of other aesthetic agendas that are not necessarily working in our favor. So, ecomodernism and technoutopia draws on a very deep pool of aesthetic references. 60s avant garde imagery. The Bucky Fuller domes. Some of the beloved work even of firms like Archigram certainly feed into a kind of ecomodernism and technoutopia.
And then we can think about climate barbarism, as Naomi Klein talks about. And in climate barbarism Dissent magazine recently had this discussion of how the climate denialism can very quickly turn to ecofascism. So in that case what is the aesthetic at play? Maybe it’s…you know, the Mad Max series certainly comes to mind. But a very clear vision of an aesthetic future world in which fear predominates and that robs people of their rights in a different way.
So the question here of what does a liberatory aesthetic extensibility entail is a critical one. As an inoculation agent against ecofascism and climate barbarism, can we start to develop a coherent vision of maybe an empathic, a humanistic, a cooperative aesthetic and practice? Or even an aesthetic for the cultivation of multi-species justice, to quote Donna Haraway. And certainly we see that resonating for certain groups of people. Think of Extinction Rebellion, really galvanizing a moment that is not based on humanistic values but actually a crisis of ecological collapse and the Sixth Extinction.
So so far these are all pretty dark aesthetics. But this panel is supposed to be about joyful, liberatory aesthetics. So what do we need to develop in order to advance that conversation? What kind of non-white, non-Anglo, decolonial aesthetics and imaginaries are needed today for this political moment?
So we heard from Yuriko the idea of broken world thinking. We heard from Anastasiia the idea of nature as collaborator in a post-human or a multi-species inspiration and maybe even a coproduction. And from Priscilla you know, the value of these qualities of simplicity, reciprocity, not necessarily comfort, as a different mode of being.
So, maybe just to posit a few others, can we have an environmental justice aesthetic, and what would that even look like? Is there a Green New Deal Coalition aesthetic? I mean for now I think the Sunrise Movement certainly has a clear aesthetic agenda, and that is worth recognizing, just the power of design in the coherence of the imagery that Sunrise has been able to galvanize.
But so if the technological sublime is not it, it’s unbearable modernism. And if it’s not small is beautiful, then what is the kind aesthetic to strive for? Is there such a thing as a low-carbon aesthetic that we can start to cultivate? That one’s tricky, because a lot of the qualities of low-carbon economies and built environments are not visual. As Daniel reminded us, the technology that produces the comfort is hidden from view. So how do we start to signify this? Is it an aesthetic question? Can we get beyond solar panels on the roof?
Maybe here this idea of nature as collaborator is useful. Coproduction not just with individual non-human agents, but with entire ecosystems and with technological forces and mechanisms. So, maybe what I’m envisioning is a deeper carbon literacy that works with natural processes, that works with carbon sinks and drawdown mechanisms, that cultivates a certain kind of negative emissions practice. Maybe this starts to mean the celebration of carbon sinks, of the production of soils, the creation of carbon forests close to home. Maybe the imagining of the material supply chains in our everyday products.
Surely this comes up with renewable energy in the landscape, which is undoubtedly a major piece of a Green New Deal, something I wrote about a little bit in my article for Landscape Architecture Magazine. Aesthetics is certainly a part of that. And in fact, Dirk Simmons, a landscape architect from the Netherlands is even more direct. He says that aesthetics is the battlefield on which the renewable energy transition will be won or lost, whether we can scale up in time or not.
And so with that, I guess I should stop talking and ask the panel you know, what is the aesthetic agenda that for you—that you think is most critical to build for advancing and sustaining a Green New Deal? Or maybe the aesthetic agenda that it’s most critical to unbuild first.
Yuriko Saito: I guess I’ll go first. I mean you rattled off the so many things and I don’t know how much I can respond. But from my work in aesthetics as a philosophy discipline, of one of the things that I have been sort of fighting against is the model of aesthetic experience, aesthetic appreciation, is always from the point of view of a spectator. And the object of aesthetic experience is the object of gaze. And so there is no sort of— And if I do name-dropping, Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, who is really the father of modern aesthetic theory, he defined aesthetics as a disinterested pleasure. So that means that we have to get rid of all kinds of you know, interest in the existence of the object. And I think that that really did a disservice to the discipline of aesthetics.
So that goes into sort of like booking at an aesthetic value of the objects only in terms of the formal structure and things of that sort, and get rid of moral consideration, environmental consideration, political implications, and so on. And you know—I mean that’s extremely problematic.
So I think that from my sort of academic discipline point of view, one of the things that I want to emphasize is that aesthetic experience is something that you live with, and that you have a vested interest in. So it’s not just a spectator, or a visitor, looking at and making a judgment. And one of the examples of how this plays out is like, Detroit. Okay, so all kinds of you know, the urban decay. And so there’s a perversion of…you probably are familiar with the notion of ruin porn? Ruin tourism? And so what is that?
And also New Orleans, that’s another sort of example of a ruined city with all kinds of natural disasters and economic devastation. So, what should New Orleans do? And I read one book on…I can’t remember the name of the book. But anyway. It has to do with what you do with ruinous urban decay. And well, the community people who live there, they don’t want to cleanse it and to build it you know, sort of new structures. Because they want to hang on to some of the remnants of history, which could be dark. But they are the sort of stakeholders. And so the aesthetic judgment…we think that well, it’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s [indistinct], it’s decaying, so we have to clean it up.
Well, I think that’s where I think everybody in this panel talked about how that’s one very limited perspective. And that we have to listen to various other ways of looking at things. So aesthetic judgment is no exception.
So that’s one thing. And I had a couple of things but I— Go ahead.
Anastasiia Raina: Something that you mentioned about… Being born during—well, a few months after Chernobyl… Something, ecotourism or ruin tourism is prevalent in Ukraine and especially with the recent Chernobyl show something that we’re…there is a resurgen—interest in that specific territory. But alternatively I wanted to mention there’s another movie that’s called Babushkas of Chernobyl. And that is a wonderful depiction of women who refuse leaving the territory, and creating a sort of feminist utopia of their own as a way of reconstructing a specific area because they cannot possibly imagine moving away from a place where they were born, got married, had children. Which leads to another notion of would we think about third natures or creating third natures, where we are developing technologies and developing new ways of trying to reconciliate our sort of…the ruin that we had created. So that would be I guess one way of experiencing aesthetics.
Going back to design, in general something that—designers are very optimistic people. And usually design thinking, which combines this optimism and solutionism, plus biomimicry creates a really strange combination. As designers we always think of ourselves as someone who can solve problems when a project is being displayed as something that needs solving. I think moving away from the solutionist aesthetics or solutionist way of thinking about design is one way of becoming real and perhaps decentering our way of thinking that we can actually solve issues that don’t really have any solutions. So that would be my second point.
And then of course, one of the pitfalls of speculative thinking—so moving away from solutionism but ending up in speculative thinking—is that no matter how much we love it and no matter how much we enjoy spending time thinking about all the different futures, still trying to find ways how that could actually be implemented in practice and to make things…sort of moving away from just speculation but—implementation of some of those solutions into real design practice beyond academia. And that would mainly begin with education, and sort of reeducation of clients and industry. I think that would be a really important part in sort of beginning.
Priscilla Solis Ybarra: I think one of the things that really compelled me in my work in the context of working on environmental issues, which can often be very daunting, and some people might think that we’re dwelling on catastrophe and crisis all the time. But one of the things that I find really inspiring is looking at communities that have been enduring, and adapting, and thriving, or as Gerald Vizenor puts it enacting survivance in the face of racial capital, night. We had a whole beautiful panel bringing attention to racial capitalism, and I completely agree that that needs to be the center of the work that we’re doing.
So if we ask the question that you’re asking, Nick, about aesthetics and centering racial capitalism, you know this might seem repetitive given the talk I just gave, but looking to communities that have done this. Challenging the temporality. Saying this is not something that we are reinventing, that we’re inventing from scratch right now, but there are communities that we can look to that exist, have joyful thriving existences, adapting, and have been doing it for a really long time—what are their aesthetics like? Like what can they teach us? And I just look at a very small sliver of that, even though it feels to me like a huge field, right. Latinx imaginaries, there’s so much work to be done there but we have you know, African American imaginaries, indigenous imaginaries. So many communities that can show us.
Now, a caveat for that you know, we don’t want to be extractive about that. Like go visit those communities and say, “Okay. I see how you did it. Let me take this back and commodify this and use it for everyone, right. With environmental issues it’s too easy to slip into kind of a universalizing like”, okay we’re we’re facing this big challenge together, we’re gonna work all together. But the thing that got us to this place is because we weren’t working together, so we need to be respectful of these boundaries still and not be extractive of these cultures but certainly amplify the space that we give to them so that they can have more resources to do what they’re doing. And that’s what the literal decolonizing of lands is about, right. So I would say that’s not necessarily directly addressing the question about aesthetics but definitely decolonizing lands will show us what’s possible.
Adi: So we can take a couple of questions from the audience.
Audience 1: Hi. That was a really awesome panel. So, Anastasiia I really appreciated the commentary about the problems with solutionist aesthetics. And I also appreciated Yuriko, what you mentioned about the sort of spectator-centricity of how we often approach aesthetics and the sort of apprehension of nature. But a challenge that I have in thinking about those really important problems with regard to the Green New Deal is so much of the iconography, and so many of the ways that we aestheticize a transition, is contingent on a very—is very solutionist and is very ocularcentric. The sort of flat imagery like we saw in Kai’s presentation of solar panels just across the green, and sort of the reproduction of those New Deal aesthetics but with renewable energy instead. That seems to be the go-to in how we aestheticize a renewable energy transition. And frankly even in climate justice spaces, where there are brown people and there’s gesturing to other kinds of imaginaries there’s still the centrality of this fetishized technology occupying a fetishized sense of nature, like the kinds we saw in Yuriko’s presentation. And so I for the life of me cannot begin to think about what does an aestheticization of a Green New Deal look like that does not fall into those pitfalls of ocularcentrism, that do not fall in the pitfalls of that solutionist thinking, and that sort move us toward a broader apprehension of what we think of as nature in trying to trouble the problematics you call attention to. So I’d appreciate if you guys could speak to that broad provocation. Thank you.
Saito: Well, I don’t have the answer to that, I think it’s a wonderful question. I do agree that the Green New Deal, the posters you know, everything associated with that sort of really borrows the vocabulary from the original New Deal. And it is definitely ocularcentric, which is really a problem with the society at large. I mean, not just the environmental issue but I mean we are so vision-oriented, more than ever. So I don’t know how to overcome that, but I think one of the things which would be really important is sort of body engagement? So we do things. So we do gardening. Or we do a laundry hanging. I mean, it doesn’t have that sort of power of like immediate sort of visual effect. But I think that in my work in everyday aesthetics I’m trying to get away from that ocularcentric, vision-oriented, spectator-centric aesthetics to focus more on what we can experience as a sort of a body, engaging in certain activities.
And cooking is one another example, you know. Cooking is not simply a tool to produce some result, but the process, the activity of cooking itself has a real joyful moment. I mean it can be really hard, and you know, requires a lot of skills and so on.
And the same thing with repair. What would be the difference if I want to mend this jacket and I just take it to the tailor and then I pick it up, and I paid her. I don’t have any engagement with this object. But if I learn how to do the mending I can go— I mean, I know how to sew. But those people who don’t know, they can go to the Care Cafe or a place like that, and then learn the skills. And then I start mending my jacket. Then it’s sort of creates a joyful experience. There’s a sense of accomplishment. And so this is no longer an object, a disposable object that I can just toss when this is no longer in style. This is about twenty years old, by the way.
So, I think that it’s a great question. And I think that there is a sort of potential for actively engaging in certain activities… It doesn’t matter, but I think repair would be a good example that has gone out of—you know…not out of style. But I mean, we used to do that. People used to do that all the time. But people don’t do that partly because many things are not repairable. And many things just…you know, do not have the skills. And so there’s a kind— I’m not romanticizing good old days, but there is certain wisdom that we can gain from that.
Raina: So in terms of solutionism… Continuing on the activity part of things, as soon as you begin to engage with multidisciplinary studies and when you engage with scientists and people outside of your own discipline, you very quickly understand that as a designer you know nothing? And solutionism and desire to solve design problems really—like, the sense of humility when you’re facing someone who has an entirely different set of references of knowledges. Knowledge I think is a huge part of understanding that we really do not have any answers to the wicked problems that we’re dealing with today. So that’s one thing.
And in terms of aesthetics, visuals are extremely powerful and perhaps it’s very easy to move away like oh, if a visual is acting in one way then perhaps we need to move away into…perhaps even the anti-aesthetic. But I think something that perhaps critical design, critical…being critical about technology and specifically James Bridle’s New Aesthetic does really well is being able to visualize the underlying systems that are invisible to us, and perhaps that’s something that we could also employ in talking about just transitions.
Adi: By the way, Anastasiia was the designer of all the posters for the symposium, so I have to acknowledge that.
Audience 2: Just real quick. I really appreciate the stuff about repair. And one of the things we do here in Providence is the day after Thanksgiving, we give away winter coats. We call it the Buy Nothing Day Winter Coat Exchange. And I like to think of it as a good model for how we might want to start to think about transformation. So, if you know anything about it and care to comment otherwise.
[panelists look at each other for several seconds]
Audience 3: Hi, thanks for your panel. I just wanted to make one comment about the theme of invisibility that’s been coming up. Something that I’ve been working on is trying to reframe that as invisiblized rather than invisible. So, situating responsibility and agency within that. My work is on disaster, in all its forms. And I think that a lot of times, we fail to interrupt these cycles because there are forces that are interested in invisiblizing in order to maintain power and accumulation. So I just wanted to put that idea of invisiblized rather than invisible out there.
Adi: Alright, I think we have to close, right, it’s time? But I want to thank everyone for staying and I want to thank our panelist Nick for this wonderful panel. Thank you.
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