UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Artists of the floating world : rethinking art/sustainability relations in the late days of modernity Maggs, David


This research is an attempt to reroute art-sustainability relations through the metaphysical juncture of Modernism’s fading dichotomies, i.e. fact-value, subject-object, culture-nature. For many this relationship has fallen short, particularly in the form of infocentric, instrumental engagements aimed at behaviour change. But if we read sustainability as a problem of worldview and artistic agency as ontological in nature, might something more promising emerge? To explore this, four artists were commissioned to produce work in response to an analysis of sustainability built around Bruno Latour’s ‘Modern Constitution’. The interests were twofold, to investigate the challenge of engaging art’s ‘ontological agency’ in light of prior art-sustainability frustrations; and to explore practical and ontological dimensions of operating ‘beyond’ the dichotomies of Modernity. The first interest concerns the prescriptive challenge of artistic agency—how do we ‘use’ art? Outcomes include the following explorations: A distinction between art’s behavioral and ontological agencies; a proposed category of ‘artistic ontologists’ to house scholarship aligning ontological agency with aesthetic, expressive, and imaginative priorities; a view of art as ‘double agent’, necessarily ‘of’ and ‘against’ encompassing rationalities; and the argument that a healthy view of art is fundamentally epistemological, a means to learn not teach. Regarding a ‘post’ Modern or ‘post-normal’ world, this research proposes to shift sustainability from the well-worn challenge to prove the world real to the more perplexing challenge to prove the world imaginary. This entails a shift from ‘substantive’ approaches to sustainability (facts drive values) to ‘procedural’ approaches, where sustainability emerges from the interactions of immanent human and non-human agencies. Practical concerns include structuring emergent dynamics within collective processes and shifting expertise accordingly. Ontological dimensions explore particular ‘qualities of immanence’ that might shape our imaginings in fruitful ways, while pursuing a genuine exit from Modernity nonetheless. Building on Mike Hulme’s arguments, I suggest sustainability in an imaginary world involves ‘flipping the sustainability predicate’, turning a problem we are trying to solve into one that solves us. This engages John Robinson’s work on ‘regenerative sustainability’ by arguing that regenerative approaches may not only be more compelling, but increasingly in line with emerging logics of a post-normal world.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada