Moving Sideways

Art and design heralded as ‘sustainable’ runs the gamut from low-fi art installations to completely self- sustained buildings that utilize some of the most advanced technology the world has to offer. Despite the wide breadth of work given the honor of being ‘sustainable’ in todays sustainability-crazed art and design world, there is one thing that is fundamentally similar about almost all of it – it’s all commenting on the present rather than the future.

In a recent interview with Simon de Pury for Nowness, Daphne Guinness bemoaned that “everyone was looking forward until the moon landings, and then….everything went slightly sideways.” I find this quote to be incredibly accurate when applied to contemporary sustainable art and design because we are attempting to solve problems of the future in a sideways state of mind. As if in 50 years the height of technology will still be relevant, and our tastes in art and design will have remained unchanged.

If the world will be different in 50 years, how can we decide what is sustainable and what isn’t?

Here’s some food for thought:

the sculptural work entitled “Stillness in Motion” by Olga Ziemska Studios,


the handmade, locally-sourced wooden bowls made by designer Jonathan Leech,


the beehive-like structure created by architects Achawin Laohavichairat, Montakan Manosong, and Peerapon Karunwiwat that sucks its energy from buildings by attaching itself to them.

Which, if any, of these works are sustainable?

I believe that all of these can be or cannot be sustainable design depending on how the conversation is framed and the actual result of the work.

If Ziemska’s work creates change in the self of the viewer, and encourages them to reanalyze their interactions with the ‘natural’ world, it is sustainable art because it is influencing future behavior. If Ziemska’s work does not create such a change, it nonetheless remains a beautiful piece of work, but should not be considered sustainable simply because it utilizes materials from nature.

Similarly, Leech’s independent actions in creating his wooden objects are encompassed within a sustainable methodology but his influence on consumerism is more questionable. As thoughtful as the creation of his objects may be, their primary purpose is to be aesthetically desirable. Their design makes the consumer feel better about their actions, but doesn’t make the consumer change their over- consumption.

Finally, the beehive home is a pinnacle of architectural technology, including waste filtration and some food independence through hydroponics. Unfortunately, it’s still a three floor single family home in a Bangkok that is already bursting at the seams in 2012. The home is technologically advanced, but culturally stagnate. Why do the architects think that urban dwellers will continue to live in detached single family homes?

Unless we wish to sustain our current environment, sustainable art and design should be moving forward so that it remains relevant in the future. Artists and designers that hope to create sustainable work need to start thinking about the future as completely different and designing for a new world. It’s time to stop our sideways motion and realign on a forward marching path.

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