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Circular aesthetics

Ferris wheel in Spreepark Berlin

What can we, as artists and creatives, learn from the historical Bauhaus movement about today's challenges? Among the many possible insights, one important lesson is about undoing the distinctions between the fine and the applied arts. Nowadays, it seems equally urgent to follow this trajectory and to defragment the divisions of the cultural sectors and creative industries. This would introduce a New European Bauhaus circle of aesthetics which were, in deed, circular.

Wait — circular aesthetics? We have heard of circular economies: They are about the elimination of the concept of waste. Circularity means to renew, repair and regenerate resources as opposed to a model of linear production often referred to as: ‘take, make, dispose’.

How would this work with aesthetics, commonly (mis-)understood as our perception and appreciation of beauty? Let's start with a small provocation: Circular aesthetics demand not only new skillsets -- for example, to identify hostile design, to build with renewable materials, to activate collective intelligence and to share creativity. They also require a fundamentally different understanding of innovation -- in other words a radical questioning of the very idea of what it means to make something new.

What kind of innovation do we need when we face wars, a pandemic and the ultimate threats of climate disruptions — not just one after the other, but more or less everywhere and all at the same time? How can we update our understanding of innovation in ways that would not just isolate one emergency at a time, limit it's impact and then propose a solution, that satisfies a specific need?

On the contrary, the question is: How can we learn to respond to a multiplicity of crises -- bearing in mind that any solution might be overdetermined and rendered pointless by an escalation of urgencies we can barely foresee?

Just raising this question is the beginning of its answer. At its core lies an understanding of societal innovation as a continuous combination and recombination of anticipatory, participatory, and emancipatory practices. Rather than an assembly line of knowledge production, rather than the vicious cycle of extraction and exploitation of human and natural resources, rather than a triangulation of knowledges, we have to re-align sensory and cognitive experience into virtuous circles: circles that run through and across many, still isolated stages of participating in co-creation processes, anticipating future forms of value and emancipating our imagination from conventions and expectations of the same. 

Of course, it is important to showcase concrete examples and best practices of what can or needs to be done. But it is equally urgent to develop a systemic approach that neither exhausts itself on a microlevel nor remains on the surface while running danger to just add some kind of greenwashing of otherwise business as usual. Instead, such a circular approach will deliver both, a sense and an understanding of societal transformations that become both critical and real, as much as they can sustain themselves.

A circular approach to aesthetics encourages and enables artists and engineers, architects, social scientists, designers, policymakers, and all others to complement circular economies with circular aesthetics. That is to experiment with the means of productive imagination in a non-linear fashion: open-ended, systematic, and generative approaches to building transformation literacy and capacity through the application and use of renewable resources, distributed technologies, inclusive co-creative approaches, abductive reasoning and iterative prototyping of possible solutions to complex challenges. 

The broad aim is to investigate key foundations for a new ethics and aesthetics of coming together in response to — and in anticipation of — the growing challenges of forced and unforced mobility and displacement in the age of climate crisis, societal transformations, and large-scale transitions. Amongst apathy, desperation and fear, the goal is to make place and create spaces for a community that is missing, that does not exist yet, but is in becoming.

This undertaking paves the way of a kind of entrepreneurship that we suggest to call artistic entrepreneurship: At stake is the relationship between the self of the artists and their positions within new divisions of creative labor in response to and as a result of multiple crisis situations. Instead of transmitting messages of doom and gloom, it is about transforming the institutional contexts and claiming collective ownership of the means of effective change.

Reducing the current challenges to matters of spiritual renewal, individual behavior or personal guilt, will only enforce consumerism, pessimism and despondency, instead of breaking with its logics. The history of fossil-fueled industrialism should have provided enough evidence of the disastrous consequences when the re-organization of the relationships to nature according to the actual capacities of technological innovation fails. Rather than the subjugation and exploitation of the phenomenal world as "nature", rather than a fetishization or demonization of "technology", the challenge is to gain a (self-)critical understanding of their multiple roles and potential relationships.

However, art is not only a return of the oppressed, the "unconscious memory of the liberation that failed, of the promise that was betrayed", as Herbert Marcuse argued. Art provides us also the capacity to make futures actionable and anticipate future forms of valorization. It is by the means of productive imagination through the arts that we can envision a future in which we act together, propose new forms of value and make them economically and ecologically sustainable.

We are convinced that, today more than ever before, advanced practices in the arts must play a decisive role in driving mission-oriented research and supporting a shift from extractive towards anticipatory innovation. What we need to talk about now: how and where can we best mobilize the potential, impact and value of art in changing the human condition and the human experience?

Florian Schneider

[Notes of a contribution to ECIS2022 organized by ECBN in May 2022]