[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.

Further Reference

Climate Futures II event page