1st Edition

Sustainability in an Imaginary World Art and the Question of Agency

By David Maggs, John Robinson Copyright 2020
    264 Pages
    by Routledge

    264 Pages
    by Routledge

    Sustainability in an Imaginary World explores the social agency of art and its connection to complex issues of sustainability.

    Over the past decade, interest in art’s agency has ballooned as an increasing number of fields turn to the arts with ever-expanding expectations. Yet just as art is being heralded as a magic bullet of social change, research is beginning to throw cautionary light on such enthusiasm, challenging the linear, prescriptive, instrumental expectations such transdisciplinary interactions often imply. In this, art finds itself at a treacherous crossroads, unable to turn a deaf ear to calls for help from an increasing number of ostensibly non-aesthetic fields, yet in answering such prescriptive urgencies, jeopardizing the very power for which its help was sought in the first place.

    This book goes in search of a way forward, proposing a theory of art aiming to preserve the integrity of arts practices within transdisciplinary mandates. This approach is then explored through a series of case studies developed in collaboration with some of Canada’s most prominent artists, including internationally renowned nature poet Don McKay; Italian composer and Head of Vancouver New Music, Giorgio Magnanesi; the renowned Electric Company Theatre, led by Kevin Kerr; and finally through a largescale multimedia installation aiming to reimagine the relationship between climate, culture, and human agency.

    Sustainability in an Imaginary World will be of great interest to students and scholars of arts-based research fields, sustainability studies, and environmental humanities.

    Table of Contents

    Section 1: Realigning the art-sustainability relationship

    Chapter 1 - An Introduction to Sustainability in an Imaginary World

    Section 1 – Realigning the art-sustainability relationship

    Section 2 – Artists of the Floating World

    Section 3 – Sustainability in an Imaginary World


    Chapter 2 - Sustainability as a failure of ontology

    What kind of problem is sustainability?

    A problem for Modernism or about Modernism?

    The Subjects of Sustainability: Information Deficit Models and the Modernist Problem of Personhood

    Social Practice

    The objects of sustainability and the rise of complexity

    Methodological or Ontological redress?

    A banishing of science?

    Or Modernity?

    Flattening Ontology

    Procedural Sustainability

    Flipping the Predicate

    Regenerative Sustainability

    The joyful climate crisis?


    Chapter 3 – Art as the Attention we Pay

    A risky proposition?

    Value-add or Trade-off?

    Transformative vs. Co-optive?

    Two Cautionary Tales

    A descriptive swing and a miss: The Mozart Effect

    A prescriptive swing and a miss: Art and science communication

    Gauging the risk

    Why do we think art has agency and where does this instinct typically lead?

    A theory of art for transdisciplinary work?

    Instauration and the nature of construction

    Beings capable of worrying you?

    George Steiner and the ‘Unmastered Thereness’

    Heidegger and the ontological agency of art

    world/earth tensions

    Tools vs. Art

    Indirect, Mediated, and Frustrating

    The agency of the work of art

    Conclusion: Art as the quality of attention we pay

    Chapter 4 – Does It Need to be Good to be Useful? Art, Aesthetic Merit, and Research Design

    In search of the full promise of artistic agency?

    Tackling a ‘meta’ problem

    Aesthetic Priorities in Transdisciplinary Art Practices

    Leavy’s resolution

    Resistance is fertile?

    Aligning descriptive and prescriptive orientations

    Misappropriation of Voice?

    Aesthetic priorities and democracy?

    Amateurs, and aesthetic priorities vs. aesthetic merit.


    Double Entrepreneurship as our Homeric moment?

    Section 2: Artists of the Floating World

    Chapter 5 –Artists of the Floating World: An Art-Sustainability Commissioning Strategy


    Modifying Modernism? Artists of the Floating World

    Models of/Models for

    A double agent?

    Artist selection

    Commissioning document



    Artefact analysis

    The risk?

    Chapter 6 – A Bard in the Borderlands: The Poetry of Don McKay


    Poetry in the borderlands

    Science or Sentiment?

    The Double Agent: metaphors to unmap the world

    Earth in our Worlds


    Poetic Attention

    New works for Artists of the Floating World

    The purgatory of trash

    Thingamajig or Talking to your stick, boots, and chair



    rocking chair

    The thing itself

    Engaging Thingamajig’s audience

    Written feedback: love as the unclasping of objectivity

    Student blog: ‘Thingifying’ at home

    The perils of ‘listening with language’

    Interview 1

    Interview 2

    Interview 3


    Chapter 7 – Faith in a World of our Making? The Perils of Interactive Theatre


    Modes of Emergence

    Collaborative creators: The evolution of a devising company

    Where do plays come from?

    Immanence, interactivity, and an early need for structure

    Emergent interactivity

    Freedom and Structure

    Collaborative models and the professional artist

    Imagining the audience: a historical perspective

    Substantive emergence: writing for an audience vs. writing with an audience

    Immersive theatre: when the wall came down…

    Sleep No More: The paragon of the form

    You Are Very Star development process

    Substantive emergence: resolving the inkblot-cougar problem

    Procedural emergence: pushing collaborative creation to new heights

    True experimentation

    The normative advantage of emergent process

    You Are Very Star (brief synopsis)

    Audience response: life beyond the wall

    Narrative and character

    Audience interactivity

    Art of the Floating World?

    Chapter 8 - Interactive Music Making: Radical Aesthetics, Radical Politics?


    A perplexing result

    The rise of Musical Modernism

    The quest for absolute value

    Composer as hero

    The emergence of an industry

    The imagined audience: social or historical?

    The Late Quartets

    The origin of value?

    Rite of Spring: the paradigm case

    The Zero Hour: music post-World War II

    Diverging avant-gardes

    Similar fates

    Our inescapable humanity?

    The abdication of Giorgio Magnanensi

    An encompassing immanence

    Process over product

    Interactivity, individuality, democracy

    Bold experimentation

    Back at the fork in the road

    Commissioned work for the GCC: Teatro Dell’udito CIRS

    Emergent interactivity or grey-green mush?

    Engagement? Interaction? Meaning? Agency?

    Emancipating the audience?

    Pattern seekers

    The right answer to the wrong question?

    Back to the fork in the road, only wiser?

    Chapter 9 - Making Sense of Artists of the Floating World


    Development Process

    Making sense of the results

    Art, Modernism, and Sustainability

    Interactivity as a refutation of Modernism

    A paradox

    A different problem

    Aesthetic Priorities


    Section 3: Sustainability in the Imaginary World

    Chapter 10 - Sustainability in an Imaginary World: The Initial Ideas

    Design Elements of SIW

    Sustainability as a challenge of ontology

    Art as an agent of ontology

    Scenarios as a compelling partner?

    Digital capacity as an obvious means?

    Philosophical indulgence: Policies, Worlds, Axioms

    A wheel in a wheel?

    A rocket to the moon or worse?


    Chapter 11 – Principles of Transdisciplinary Research as a Template for Arts-Based Research?


    Principles of Transdisciplinary Practice

    The SIW development process

    Phase 1: Researchers Alone

    Phase 2: Researchers and Artists

    Phase 3: Artists and Technicians

    Phase 4: Researchers and Audience

    SIW and the principles of Transdisciplinary Practice


    Chapter 12 – A glimpse into Sustainability in an Imaginary World

    General Project Overview

    2016 and 2017

    2017 Script

    What was the point?

    Chapter 13 – Making Art in a Digital World – Thoughts on an Unstable Landscape


    Great Expectations

    Art and Interactivity

    The Paradox of Interactivity

    Ax and the Category of Art

    Walton’s Categories of Art

    Prescriptive Possibilities?


    Chapter 14 – Evaluating Sustainability in an Imaginary World

    At the edge of instrumentalization

    The worst of both worlds?

    Participant Debriefs

    The Results

    Ambiguity and Embodiment

    Mixed reviews

    A blessed failure?

    Layers of Success

    Creating a compelling encounter

    Generating deep reflection

    Multiple fluid perspectives on sustainability

    Inspiring high-quality dialogue

    Interactivity and agency

    But is it the art?

    The problem with our best data

    The Problem with our worst data

    Adjusting SIW evaluation




    Cause or Effect?

    Chapter 15 – Hopeful Monster


    Making sense of hopeful monsters




    Aligning with a dyadic theory of art

    Abandoning the mission?

    Considering SIW as a hopeful monster



    David Maggs carries on an active career as an interdisciplinary artist and arts-researcher. He is the founder and pianist for Dark by Five (darkbyfive.com), has written works for the stage, and collaborated on large augmented reality projects. David is the artistic director of the rural Canadian interarts festival Gros Morne Summer Music (gmsm.ca), founder and publisher of a digital arts magazine (oldcrowmagazine.com), and the director of The Graham Academy, a youth performing arts training academy. He initiated and co-produced the CBC documentary The Country. As an academic David focuses on arts practices and the challenge of sustainability. His doctoral thesis Artists of the Floating World led to the SSHRC-funded Sustainability in the Imaginary World led by Principal Investigator John Robinson (www.imaginesustainability.today). His research attempts to understand sustainability as a cultural challenge, and to make sense of art as a driver of social impacts. He has been a featured speaker at the Canadian Arts Summit, The International Transdisciplinarity Conference, the National Valuing Nature Conference, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich), and elsewhere.

    John Robinson is a Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and the School of the Environment at the University of Toronto. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Copenhagen Business School and Visiting Professor at Utrecht University in 2019. At U of T, he is Presidential Advisor on the Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability, and heads up the Sustainable Built Environment Performance Assessment (SBEPA) research network. His research focuses on the intersection of climate change mitigation, adaptation and sustainability; the use of visualization, modelling and citizen engagement to explore sustainable futures; sustainable buildings and urban design; the role of the university in contributing to sustainability; creating partnerships for sustainability with non-academic partners; the history and philosophy of sustainability; and, generally, the intersection of sustainability, social and technological change, ways of thinking, and community engagement processes.