Sustainability in an Imaginary World : Art and the Question of Agency book cover
1st Edition

Sustainability in an Imaginary World
Art and the Question of Agency

ISBN 9781032238746
Published December 13, 2021 by Routledge
264 Pages

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Book Description

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

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


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David Maggs carries on an active career as an interdisciplinary artist and arts-researcher. He is the founder and pianist for Dark by Five (, 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 (, founder and publisher of a digital arts magazine (, 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 ( 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.