Blurring boundaries

by Sarah Hay

(This is the seventh in a series of research projects being developed by Graduate Students at Emily Carr Institute.)

I have chosen to pursue a Masters of Applied Arts degree at the Emily Carr Institute (ECI) in order to investigate the emergent roles of artists and designers responding to the challenge of sustainable development and interdisciplinarity. My research will examine the synergies between participatory ecological design and new genre public art to address the questions: what and how can people learn from each other in social public spaces. I am particularly interested in the relationships between: people and their desire to live sustainably (conscious consumption, finding balance, community involvement), evolving aesthetics and perceptions of ‘green’, design and ecology.

Both sustainability and interdisciplinarity are highly relevant issues today both in theory and in practice, yet they are often criticized for being too ambiguous and ambitious (Robinson, 2003, Cutler, 2003). Sustainability is an integrative concept which aims to address the complexities of human activity in a holistic manner (typically social, economic and ecological dimensions but also political, technological, cultural, and spiritual) in response to environmental and social degeneration. As a designer, my work responds to this challenge by moving away from the figure of a traditional designer, and toward the role of facilitator acting with design tools (Manzini, 2005) to encourage new connections.

In the context of this research, New Genre Public Art is seen as a design tool. Introduced by Susan Lacy in 1995 in the book Mapping the Terrain, it distinguishes itself from traditional public art in both form and intention. Building on Happenings and Fluxus movements in the late 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s new genre public art blurs the lines between art and everyday life, artist and audience, using ‘both traditional and non traditional media to communicate and interact with a broad and diversified audience about issues directly relevant to their lives’ (Lacy, 1995). Ecological design is defined as any form of design that integrates itself with living processes in order to minimize environmental impact (Van der Ryn, 1996). Working within the context of the built urban environment both ecological design and new genre public art invite us to consider the connections between environmental phenomena with our everyday lives across a multiplicity of layers and scales. Moreover, the two emerging fields aim to break down the barriers between experts and laypeople. They ‘embody intellectual and political linkages between global and local concerns, perspectives and actions’ (Howard, 2004) and feed on the idea that we have much to learn from each other if we are open to the process of communication and interaction.

At the core of my plan of research, I propose to design and organize a series of hands on ‘arts and crafts’ workshops. The basic premise is to generate physical spaces which activate the imagination and creativity that exists within each of us while raising awareness around current environmental and social issues. This plan has evolved from my own experience organizing a similar fortnight event for 8 months which saw on average 30 participants engage with assortments of materials and tools to create objects varying from masks, collage, robots, and lanterns at a downtown Vancouver restaurant. This was a very rich experience in the sense that it created an open community which thrived on its diversity.

The next phase of the workshops will again take place in local venues in and around Vancouver each time addressing a different topic or theme to serve as a departure point for the event. Live music will serve to keep creativity energized and people participating to various degrees. The workshops will actively employ ecological design principles as taught in the IDSA’s Okala student curriculum, for example locating and redirecting material waste streams within the city to a new life. As part of my research, I would like to think of each event from a life cycle perspective. Environmental impacts will be considered through the notions of systems thinking and life cycle assessment (LCA). In addition, social, economic, and temporal aspects will be addressed, which due to their subjective nature are limitations of scientific LCA methodologies. Also important is the idea of regenerative or restorative design whereby the LCA could in fact result in a net positive impact by contributing back to the ecosystems and economies that support us. The workshops will be documented (orally and visually) for purposes of analysis and synthesis around my research questions, and consent forms for all participants will be submitted to the ethics review process in place at ECI.

A key intellectual source for this work is the research of Nicolas Bourriaud which he developed in his book, Relational Aesthetics, first published in 1998. The book is concerned with the relationships that are formed through the experience (production and reception) of works of art. This will be an important model for evaluating the success of the workshops. In addition to the thesis paper, outcomes of this ongoing research will be presented as multiple media installations with particular attention to the evolution and innovation in participatory approaches to art and design. By taking such an approach, I anticipate unpredictable yet meaningful public community engagement and interactivity.

As part of the requirements of the Master's of Applied Arts degree, a four month internship will be carried out midway through the program. It is my intention to work with an organization that is open to the idea of traveling to various conferences and cultural events related to my research most notably the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, Nevada in late August 2007. The Art Theme for 2007: The Green Man concerns humanity's relationship to nature. The five day festival in the temporary city is a global hub for installation and performative art work, and would serve as grounds for the testing and exchanging of ideas and concepts born from the Vancouver based workshops.

My research aims to blur boundaries, definitions and disciplines by valuing each other’s unique personal histories in the context of work on enabling solutions and sustainable models of living.