Sustainability and time

A brightly coloured Sand Mandala
Victoria Hume

The UN has told us that we have 12 years to sort out climate change. This is the largest health and wellbeing – and indeed cultural – challenge we face. It means that (as projects like the current Seasons for Changeacknowledge) many of us have to change our practices, and more than that, our ways of thinking.

The day after the UN released its briefing, the Creative Industries Federation International Summit hosted a panel on sustainability. Unsurprisingly much of the discussion focused on reducing consumption. Safia Qureshi spoke about her CupClub model for borrow-and-return cups. At one point she said, almost in passing, that ‘we should use things for as long as we need them and then return them to the system.’

This statement got me thinking about art and ownership.

A few weeks ago I saw Senga Nengudi’s Sandmining at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. The placard read:

Much of Nengudi’s work is made in conversation with rituals and images of different cultures […] The process of painting an environment using sand and pigment is an important practice used in Native American ceremonies to heal the sick. The kind of image created within the sand is dictated by the type of illness. The person in need of healing sits upon the image which, acting as a channel for spirits, enables them to absorb healing energies. After the process, the sand is considered toxic and is discarded.

Many other, non-western traditions of art have less concern with ownership, and indeed permanence, than the western model. Tibetan mandalas are returned to water, sand paintings do their work of healing and then fall back into the earth. Transience is in fact the point of much of this work.

Ownership, borrowing and transience all relate to the ghost of high art that still (in some spaces) haunts the credibility of participatory work. For years creative practitioners, organisations and researchers have argued for a notion of quality that depends on the extent to which our imaginations are engaged, and we become agents. This is not about creating artifacts for ownership, nor is it about a hierarchy of art that creates canons and separates artists from the rest of society. More and more this is recognised by arts institutions. Arts Council England’s new strategy consultation document – Shaping the Next Ten Years, for example, prizes community-led projects. This is an enormously positive shift that flies in the face of the acquisitive mores of the fine art industry (highlighted most recently by Banksy’s self-destructive Girl with Balloon).

But sustainability is not just about what we make, but how we make it. The Independent recently added to long calls to trash the ‘dangerous myth’ of the tortured artist (canonised and separated) – adding that ‘it’s the way creative workers are treated that causes breakdown.’ Precarious practice is creeping into all areas of cultural work, not just the actual making. An ACE/Kings College London report – Changing Cultures – has pointed to the increasing risk of burnout amongst arts leaders (aptly enough, with a sand painting on its cover). Having returned to the culture, health and wellbeing ‘scene’ after a few years living in another country I am forcibly struck by the hours people work – emails fly around at weekends, early mornings, late nights (I am definitely complicit in this). The Paul Hamlyn Foundation recently reported on arts organisations’ struggles with short-term, fixed funding. Arts Council of Northern Ireland CEO Róisín McDonough spoke at the recent Arts Care Fusion Symposium in Belfast about the pressure on arts organisations caused by 40% cuts in funding. She talked about people working longer hours, for less money, and spoke with affecting concern about organisations at ‘breaking point’.

If sustainability is about the people doing the work, it is also, evidently, about diversification and inclusion. The lack of time for development and reflection manifests in closed employment patterns. Moreover the pressures to work crazy hours in often part-time roles may favour a certain kind of workforce, one with the capacity to recover and subsidise, financially and temporally. The Changing Cultures report quotes an interview with Claire Hodgson, Co-Artistic Director of Diverse City, in which she says that ‘a lot of people we’ve trained simply cannot access the workplace as it exists, and that’s not because they’re not good leaders, it’s because the workplace is the same as it was forty years ago.’ Diversity and sustainability are mutually dependent. The same report, happily, suggests that flatter and more dispersed leadership is on the rise: ‘The shift from the traditional ‘heroic’ concept of the leader towards a more collaborative approach is emerging across the private, public and charitable sectors’ (p.17). But in tiny organisations this opportunity to disperse is limited. And our propensity always to over-commit in funding bids is pushing us into unsustainable working patterns. We have to put in for decent fees and wages, to build in time for reflection – to keep our courage to make this case to our funders if we want more inclusive organisations. And of course we have to think collaboratively beyond our own organisations – and even beyond our immediate agendas. To think about health and wellbeing, now, is inescapably to think about inclusion, about environmental change, about inequalities.

This work to challenge paradigms takes time. More time than rushing down the furrows we already know. This sector is built on lateral thinking, radical ideas and innovation, but we are as subject to panic as everyone in the public and third sectors at the moment – the money is draining away and we are piling expectation upon expectation in a bid to hang on to what is still there. The irony is that in the process we are undercutting ourselves and making transformation – of practice and of workforce – far harder.

A placard in a recent photograph from New York reads ‘Earth needs thinkers not deniers.’ As makers, healthy practice may be partly about the courage to let go of our work, not to venerate it but to keep making, to keep returning what we no longer need into the system. And as managers, too, there may be habits that we need to discard. The urgency is real, but if we are to think innovatively about what sustainable practice in culture, health and wellbeing really means, we might just need to slow down.

A postscript: See Julie’s Bicycle for practical steps to address climate change in your own creative work or work in the cultural/heritage sectors.