Artistic Practices and Ecoaesthetics in Post-sustainable Worlds



The concept of sustainability, its discourse and societal application has been subject to pointed critique, including claims that the term has become an empty rhetorical vessel, is liable to greenwashing or that critical reflection is required on the political and philosophical underpinnings of sustainability and sustainable development (Holden 2010; Phillips 2007). Part of the critical framing around an aesthetics of sustainability has already been explored by artists and thinkers such as Maja and Reuben Fowkes (2012) and Sacha Kagan (2011). Sustainability’s broad nature mirrors the complexity of environmentalism and allows for many different aesthetic approaches. It asks of us to decrease our consumption and also to take a transdisciplinary perspective (Kagan, 2010). However a significant trend in twenty-first century relations with the natural world has been a ‘darkening’ in the tone of debate and mobilisation of apocalyptic metaphors. Climate denial by some in society is mirrored by an underlying zeitgeist of despair and guilt in areas of the environmental movement (Anderson, 2010). I have argued elsewhere that this has left us open to ‘zombie environmentalism’ (Phillips, 2012b). Is it possible to stir from this apparent stalemate to a state of flourishing, by moving on from disaster? Morton (2012) argues for a re-examination of sadness and Soper (2008) reconfigures austerity into alternative hedonism. TJ Demos (2013) discusses the significance of a political ecology to artists working towards new formulations of eco-aesthetics. A key strategy for arts practice is to relinquish “the privileged position of its autonomous and exceptionalist positioning” at the same time as maintaining a ‘countervisuality’, or ability to see things and see them differently (Mizroeff, 2013). In my own work I see eco-aesthetics as a broad set of tendencies that will take us into new futures. Elsewhere I have outlined eight sensibilities in artworks that are more adaptive at dealing with uncertainty and imperfection, risk and opportunity (Phillips, 2012a). Working through Lauren Berlant’s ideas of cruel optimism (Berlant, 2011) as a way of escaping this sense of environmental procrastination, I’ve been considering how an artwork can both embody and encourage resilience in an unruly world, something that is still positive at the same time as it ‘stays with the trouble’ (Haraway, 2013). In a recent project about Little Penguins in Sydney I’ve been grappling with applying some sense of anticipatory readiness or “a cultivated, patient, sensory attentiveness to nonhuman forces” (Bennett, 2010, p. xiv). Through this practice-based example, this paper invites an aesthetics of action in the face of the inevitable uncertainties inherent in an ecological worldview.

Download here (8.1Mb)

Artistic Practices and Ecoaesthetics in Post-sustainable Worlds in Crouch, C. Kaye, N and Crouch, J. An introduction to sustainability and aesthetics: The arts and design for the environment (55-68) Boca Raton, Florida: Brown Walker Press.


Cruel optimism, anticipatory readiness, staying with the trouble


Anderson, J. (2010). From ‘zombies’ to ‘coyotes’: environmentalism where we are. Environmental Politics, 19(6), 973-991.
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism Durham: Duke University Press.
Demos, T. J. (2013). Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Third Text, 27(1), 1-9.
Fowkes, M., & Fowkes, R. (2012). Art and Sustainability. In J. Morray, G. Cawthorne, C. Dey & C. Andrew (Eds.), Enough for All Forever: A Handbook for Learning about Sustainability (pp. 215-228). Champaign: Common Ground.
Haraway, D. J. (2013). Sowing worlds: A seedbag for terraforming with Earth others. In M. Grebowicz & H. Merrick (Eds.), Beyond the cyborg: Adventures with Haraway. New York: Columbia University Press.
Holden, M. (2010). The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy? Sustainability, 2, 645-659.
Kagan, S. (2010). Cultures of sustainability and the aesthetics of the pattern that connects. Futures, 42(10), 1094-1101. doi: 10.1016/j.futures.2010.08.009
Kagan, S. (2011). Art and Sustainability: Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Mizroeff, N. (2013). Countervisuality and the Common: The Global Social Movements, Imagination and Climate Change. Third Text Retrieved 25 April, 2013, from
Morton, T. (2007). Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Morton, T. (2012). Guilt, shame, sadness: tuning to existence. Volume, 31(Spring), 16-18.
Phillips, P. (2007). The trouble with sustainability. ArtSource Newsletter, Autumn(Resilience: on Art and Environments), 6-8.
Phillips, P. (2012a). Zombie environmentalism and cyclonic change. Paper presented at the 2012 CREATEC Symposium: Catastrophe & Creativity, Edith Cowan University, Mount Lawley.
Phillips, P. (2012b). Zombie environmentalism and cyclonic change. Paper presented at the Future Nature, Future Culture[s] 2013 Balance-Unbalance Conference, Noosa, Qld.
Soper, K. (2008). Alternative hedonism, cultural theory and the role of aesthetic revisioning. Cultural Studies, 22(5), 567-587.