Art, Uncertainty and System Change

It is becoming increasingly common to see funders, at national and international levels, in the sciences, arts and humanities, encouraging interdisciplinary approaches to various fundamental policy challenges. Initiatives focusing on the interface between art and environment, or art and ecology, mostly have emerged from an arts-based starting point, but the Arts and Environment Network (AEN) is a notable exception to this. Established by the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management in the UK, the AEN unites environmental artists, activists and cultural leaders in its aim to influence national policy dialogues and build strong new alliances for an increasingly shared agenda on the subject of environmental management.

The AEN manifesto asserts a vision to see ‘more creativity at the heart of environmental policy and action’. Its epigraph, by Daro Montag (artist and Professor at Falmouth University), reads like a list of demands: ‘Art should give us sustenance when food is in short supply. It should quench our thirst when water is scarce or polluted. It should shine a light in the dark when the power is down. It should protect us from the fallout of the unfolding crisis. Art should make us laugh and give us joy. It should fire our imagination and feed our spirits. It should remind us that everything changes.  It should give us hope to build a better world.’

The relentless use of the word ‘should’ obviously implies that art does not necessarily do any of these things by default. It suggests that certain conditions are needed for art to do so, and the AEN’s manifesto elaborates on these. Part of me wonders how making  demands on art so explicitly risks closing down other possibilities. Regardless of whether I agree that art really should deliver on all such things, I am reassured by the views  expressed in the manifesto, which lean away from the idea of art as a medium to be used towards particular ends: ‘This is not about “using art” merely as a medium to ‘communicate’ about something else. It is about adopting a more ‘artful approach’ that connects us in a different way with the world we are in, and fans the sparks of that greater creativity we need as a society for the challenges we face.’

For a while now, I have been interested in the ways in which art and politics intersect, in ideas around artistic processes, and the practical ways in which artists interact with different publics through their work. If there is a role for art in facing societal challenges, that role requires artists. In that case, what makes someone an artist, and what might an ‘artful approach’ to environmental justice involve? If art can liberate us, make us more empathetic; if it should bring us joy, feed our spirit and give us hope to build a better world, then what are the conditions needed for ensuring that it does so?

Leaving the anthropocene

Language can have a gathering effect, but it can also alienate and exclude. For a time, the term ‘Anthropocene’ gripped cultural imaginations. For Bruno Latour, it briefly brought about some new and profound connections across the sciences and arts, uniting them with a sense of global-scale urgency’.[i] Critics have contested the term for its ‘re-naturalisation of the human’, stripping the ecological crisis of its political acumen. Donna Haraway criticises terms like ‘Anthropocene’ because it suggests an over-reliance on techno-fixes for solving global challenges. To move forward, Latour considers art to be one way to acquire the ‘sensitivity equipment’ necessary for a politics of a ‘new climatic regime’. But even the word ‘equipment’ sounds utilitarian, as if the problems can be fixed as long as people acquire the right tools for the job. Haraway has other ideas. She uses vocabulary that suggests more embodied and messy strategies for addressing sustainability challenges: using tentacles, feelers, digits, spider legs and compost.

For art to be political, it should challenge power. For art to challenge power, it should stand for more than one person’s own  reflections. I want to make a case that an ‘artful approach’ requires art makers and audiences to embrace uncertainty. Like the art historian Janet Wolff, I think art can produce a messier type of knowledge that can help to develop a discourse of value without a foundation in certainties or universals, one that could contribute to ‘a progressive composition of a common world’ (Latour’s definition of politics). There are many and varied examples of artists that use their art as a form of praxis, to intervene in discourses on social and political change. I will introduce just a few here.

Opening up, broadening out

Artists who follow a practice-based research approach often employ flexible, open-ended, non-linear methods to examine, explore and engage with issues and ideas.[ii] Such an ‘artful approach’ to research often aims to open up the political process, building pathways which are currently hidden, obscured or oppressed. This chimes with the pathways approach at STEPS, which pays attention to multiple pathways, seeking to open up space for more plural and dynamic sustainabilities.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan is an artist whose work might exemplify this approach well. His work deals with the relationship between listening and politics, borders, human rights, testimony and truth through the production of documentaries, essays, audio-visual installations, video works, graphic design, sculpture, photography, workshops and performance. He also makes audio analyses for legal investigations and advocacy.

The human rights organization Defence for Children International worked with Abu Hamdan to investigate an incident that occurred in May 2014, when Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank (Palestine) shot and killed two teenagers, Nadeem Nawara and Mohamad Abu Daher. The Israeli soldiers had asserted they had used rubber bullets. The case against the soldiers hinged upon an audio-ballistic analysis of the recorded gunshots to determine whether the soldiers broke the law by firing live ammunition at the two unarmed teenagers. Abu Hamdan used special techniques designed to visualize the sound frequencies from footage of the incident to produce a detailed acoustic analysis, which established that they had fired live rounds and, moreover, had tried to disguise these fatal shots to make them sound as if they were rubber bullets. Details from Abu Hamdan’s website explains what happened next:

‘These visualizations later became the crucial piece of evidence that was picked up by the news channel CNN and other international news agencies, forcing Israel to renounce its original denial. The investigation was also presented before the U. S. Congress as an example of Israel’s contravention of the American-Israeli arms agreement.’

Lawrence Abu Hamdan “Earshot” installation views at Portikus, Frankfurt, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Portikus, Frankfurt. Photo: Helena Schlichting

A little over a year after Abu Hamdan completed his report, he returned to the case of Abu Daher and Nawara. Expanding on the original body of evidence, he created an installation of sound, photographic prints and video. The work, Earshot, questions the ways in which rights are being heard and the way voices can become politically audible. It has been exhibited internationally, contributing to a developing discourse on ‘The Politics of Listening.’ Rather than calling for free speech or for a platform for voices to be heard, Abu Hamdan makes the case for a politics of listening that reorganises how listening takes place, to open up such systems and processes, and intervene in them.


In his book Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, French philosopher Jacques Ranciere refers to ‘critical art’ as ‘an art that aims to produce a new perception of the world and therefore create a commitment to its transformation.’ Ranciere identified the ‘partage du sensible’ as a regime through which the dominant social order determines who or what is recognised as having political importance. Art can create ruptures in the partage du sensible when it introduces new sensations, ideas and forms of life to people’s perceptions and experiences, broadening the nature of discourse at the same time. It penetrates the veneer of certainty in a dominant social order. It doesn’t merely replace dominant regimes with aimless indeterminacy; rather, it exposes their limitations, and their fabrications.

In 2001, in an essay entitled ‘What is Iconoclash? Or, Is there a world beyond the image wars?’, Bruno Latour introduces the term ‘iconoclash’ as an act of asserting a sense of uncertainty over dominant assumptions and belief systems. The exhibition that accompanied the publication of this essay aimed to create a space inside a cacophony of political rhetoric, to present and test a range of ideas and interpretations, through sound and image. Latour explained, ‘Our show aims at hearing those cries of despair, horror, indignation, and stupefaction simultaneously, all at once, without having to choose too fast, without having to join our usual camps and brandish some hammer to complete some act of deconstruction … We want to restore this sense of ambiguity: who is screaming against destruction and why?’

The art historian and critic Marina Warner has written about the digital artist Joan Jonas, one of the founding figures of performance art. Drawing inspiration from various cultures and traditions, and adapting these sources so they relate to contemporary life, Jonas creates a complex, often perplexing, layering of imagery. She does not merely represent or reflect these natural forces and structures of phenomena, but she acts as a medium through which such forces and phenomena are articulated.

Joan Jonas, ‘They Come to Us without a Word’, 2015, video still, courtesy of the artist

The STEPS pathways approach recognises that who you are shapes how you understand the way systems operate in the world. These various understandings will lead to different narratives being told about those systems, and different choices being made. Warner has expressed a similar perspective when she writes, ‘When making something, memories, empirical observation and make-believe continually overlap and interact.’ [iii]

Joan Jonas’ practice could be interpreted as breaking down these different narratives to reveal how they overlap. In her films, everything appears to twist and unravel in front of our eyes, undoing certainties in a flight of visual signs; a language without an explicit code. This apparent unintelligibility can be bewildering for audiences, but they may also feel freed by the experience. As the composite nature of reality is revealed, audiences are invited to piece together what they are seeing on their own terms.

Warner writes of how Jonas became influenced by the cultural theorist Aby Warburg, who developed a view of art as a form of active engagement with the world. Through art, members of a society or a group strive to promote and guarantee their collective continuity. ‘We could say,’ writes Latour, that, ‘the more images, mediations, intermediaries, icons are multiplied and overtly fabricated, explicitly and publicly constructed, the more respect we have for their capacities to welcome, to gather, to recollect truth and sanctity.’[iv]

Collaborating, attuning, conjugating

In his book The Shape of a Pocket, John Berger observed how artists are often inaccurately perceived as creators when, in fact, they really are receivers who give form to that which is received. In this sense, an artist is always, already a collaborator. Donna Haraway has preferred terms like ‘attunement’ and ‘conjugation’ to collaboration, words that describe better ‘a practice of multispecies becoming-with’ to cultivate the capacity for response-ability for threatened places and beings.

Lawrence Abu Hamden’s work, as discussed above, is one example of how an artist’s collaborative practice can have implications for politics. Here, I will introduce an example, taken from Harway’s Staying with the Trouble, of an ‘engaged science art activist worlding’ which extends the notion of collaboration to an attunement with the non-human.

The artist Beatriz da Costa’s PigeonBlog involved working with pigeons to gather real-time pollution data in Los Angeles. Haraway celebrates the project for combining knowledge from across disciplines, civil society and species. ‘Da Costa was concerned with the way data about pollution in Los Angeles was collected,’ explains Haraway. ‘She came up with the idea of working with pigeon racing fanciers and with engineers, equipping racing pigeons with DIY-built tiny monitors that could gather real-time pollution information.’[v]

These pigeons were bringing back data from areas that government technologies were not. This collaboration sparked questions of the partiality of data collection and asked how it might be possible to get better official data for addressing air pollution in marginalised communities (where the biggest pollutants, such as factories, often are located). Harway argues, ‘[Da Costa’s] project was about environmental justice fused with multi-species art making. The actual pigeons really mattered; they were full participants, not just flying objects carrying the packs.’[vi]

An image that appeared on the PigeonBlog website, showing the packs strapped to the pigeon’s backs.

Engineers were asked to design safe monitors for the pigeons, which were carefully tested. ‘It took almost a year of building hands-on multispecies trust and knowledge essential to joining the birds, technology, and several differently situated communities of people. The pigeons were not SIM-cards, but living co-producers—the artist-researchers and pigeons had to learn to interact and to train together with the pigeon-racing humans and the racing pigeons. All the players rendered each other capable; they “became with” each other.’[vii]

The project received strong objections from local PETA activists, who questioned the ability of the pigeons to consent to their participation. These animal rights activists did not accept that the pigeons could be partners (albeit unequal partners, which is something that should be addressed as part of ‘staying with the trouble’). They also made a distinction between the use of animals for science, where at least there might be health and knowledge benefits, and what they saw as exploitation of animals for art, which they believed to be functionless.

For Haraway, this conflict demonstrated how the role of art in society is misunderstood or undervalued, compared to science, and the assumption that function determines the worth of both art and science. In contrast, PigeonBlog was attempting to do something new, with no guarantee of success. It expanded the boundaries of both art and science to see them as companion disciplines that mutually benefit each other.

sense of urgency

The Shape of a Pocket was published in December 2001. John Berger claimed at the time, ‘I’ve never written a book with a greater sense of urgency.’ The pocket in question is, ‘resistance’, and in the book Berger, ever the sensualist with a social conscience, explores his familiar topic of art and politics, this time from the new world of post-9/11 globalization. His sense of urgency was motivated by his concern for the global political response to the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Bruno Latour echoed such concern in 2015. In an op-ed published following the attacks on Paris in the days preceding COP21, Latour expressed particular concern for what he called ‘The Other State of Urgency’:

‘Global warming threatens all states in every way: from industrial production, business and housing to culture and the arts. It threatens our values at the deepest level. Here is where states are actually at war with each other, battling for market share and economic development, not to mention the soft power of culture. And each of us feels divided against ourselves. If indeed there exists a “clash of civilizations,” then this is it, and it concerns each and every one of us.’

He concluded,

‘This is a war that finds us very much divided, among nations, territories and peoples, and tragically, within ourselves, as we argue endlessly over the causes and the cures of global warming. Government alone is helpless: it needs all its citizens in this effort. And government should not impede those citizens who, by demonstrating, are trying to help their elected officials — it might even be an occasion to invent demonstrations more innovative than yet another march from Place de la République to Place de la Nation.’

Latour, Berger and Haraway all describe a need for a new ethics of solidarity to face urgent global problems. Art and its epistemologies have an important role to play, but we cannot ignore the need for an adequate means of dissemination and access for this to happen. We need to take seriously the fact that in many societies engagement with cultural institutions is uneven at best. Haraway writes of the need to unite high and low culture. I think petitioning our cultural institutions, insisting they do better and trying to help them do so[viii], is necessary for art to fulfil its potential as a driver of change. [ix]

Staying with the trouble

Today, the high-profile galleries with the securest funding usually function as a place of leisure and entertainment. We should value our cultural institutions for offering a nice day out for the family and a place to escape our worries. If we expect art to do the work of inspiring system change, however, I think it can only do so if we the art-viewing public are willing to accept that art should not always serve to bring us comfort and joy. I think art should sometimes disturb us, even horrify us.

Rather than the private experience of reading a book, watching television or streaming videos at home, art galleries expose us to new ideas and experiences in public spaces. We need the institutions, as well as the personal faculties, to allow this to happen to us without recoiling in fear. Public art galleries can be exceptional spaces that allow us to play, to make mistakes, to be vulnerable, to think for ourselves, to have conversations that test out ideas. If we want art to inspire or change us in some way, I think we ought to be prepared for the experience to be difficult or uncomfortable.

The work required for social and political change is difficult and the conditions that bring about change can be uncomfortable, dangerous and uncertain. An artful approach, rather than seeking to square the circle, should involve embracing uncertainty to test out and play with new possibilities. Art publics have to be active and join in this process.

I am pleased the STEPS Centre is participating in the System Change Hive this year. It is a new opportunity for imagining and testing alternative systems, and exploring collective identities across disciplinary boundaries. ‘Play always involves the invitation that asks “are we a ‘we’?”’, writes Donna Haraway. ‘I think all the important problems involve this propositional, questioning, interrogative “we”’.[x]

In this blog post, I have barely scratched the surface on the many ways art can be a driver of change. But it would be outrageous to assume art can really influence social change without us, its audience. I think John Berger knew this. I suspect Donna Haraway knows it, too, when she writes of our need to ‘stay with the trouble’. I think there are systems that require change before art can be taken seriously as a means of ‘changing the system’, to fulfil its potential as a means of transforming our politics and our societies. In the meantime, we must keep up the work necessary to support art that is worthy of this potential. In our struggles for a better world, we keep on inventing, with hope in the face of absurdity. Or, as Berger described it in The Shape of a Pocket, ‘Today, to try to paint the existent is an act of resistance instigating hope.’

[i] ‘Diplomacy in the Face of Gaia: Bruno Latour in conversation with Heather Davis’ in Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, London: Open Humanities Press, 2015

[ii] One interesting example of how art is operating in this space is the Research group on Art, Nature and Environment (RANE), lead by the aforementioned Daro Montag at Falmouth University.

[iii] Marina Warner, Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art & Artists, Thames and Hudson: London, 201.



[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] E.g.

[ix] Towards the end of 2018, Clive Adams (director of the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World) wrote on behalf of the AEN to Sir Nick Serota (Chair, Arts Council England) to raise the importance of support for artists to engage with issues of climate change and wider environmental threat. The reason for this open letter (available on the CIWEM website) was the Arts Council’s new 10-year strategy, which was until very recently under consultation.

[x] ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Donna Haraway in Conversation with Martha Kenney’ in Art in the Anthropocene, Open Humanities Press: London, 2015 (pp. 255—270)

One comment:

  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful post on the links between art, uncertainty, and system change. I particularly liked your points about artist practices and their messy implications for opening up and broadening our understanding of systemwide change and politics.

    May I expand on one of those implications, especially for the link between artist practice and power? I grew up in a world where power was defined conventionally (yes, simplistically) as the ability of A to get B to do what B would not have done otherwise. In contrast, one theme stands out in the self-reports of artists, regardless of their own politics (right, left, whatever): Nothing is quite as powerful as the power of A to get A to do what A would not have done otherwise.

    T.S. Eliot, poet and literary critic, confesses: “My writings, in prose and verse, may or may not have surprised other people; but I know that they always, on first sight, surprise myself. I have often found that my most interesting or original ideas, when put into words and marshalled in final order, were ideas which I had not been aware of holding.” “A writer doesn’t know what his intentions are until he’s done writing,” says poet, Robert Penn Warren; more, even when the writing is done, poets “are apt to discover that what they decide to express is not everything their poems say,” adds Anne Stevenson, the poet.

    “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” asks a character of novelist, E.M. Forster. “Therefore, till my work is finished, I never know exactly what result I shall reach, or if I shall arrive at any,” write Alex de Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill.

    “I do not know what I think until I have tried to write it,” adds political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. “I’m not sure I ever actually think without a pencil in my hand. Certainly I never wind up where I thought I would,” confesses Stacy Schiff, the biographer.

    “You never know what you’re filming until later,” remarks a narrator in Chris Marker’s 1977 film Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge. “You start a painting and it becomes something altogether different. It’s strange how little the artist’s will matters,” adds Picasso (and any number of other artists). In like fashion, “one important reason for making drawings, I imagine, is not to draw a likeness of what one sees, but to find out what it is you see,” writes poet and art critic, James Schuyler.

    Harrison Birtwistle describes his process of composing a piece of music: “I know what it is before I’ve even written it, but in other ways I don’t know at all. As I unravel it, it never turns out to be what you think it’s going to be”. “You write to find out what you believe, or what you can afford to believe,” according to psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel novelist, manages to make all this sound commonplace: “Truth is something that comes in the process of writing, or comes from the process of writing”.

    The above quotes–among the very many available–are intended to reinforce the theme that surprise is never immaterial for the artist, and it is the materiality of such surprise that I also take to be central to any progressive politics ahead.

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