Sacha Kagan is an independent researcher in the transdisciplinary field of arts and (un) sustainability along with other interests such as s
Sacha Kagan is an independent researcher in the transdisciplinary field of arts and (un) sustainability along with other interests such as sociology of arts and culture, cultural economics, dance, documentary films, sustainability and sustainable development. Author of around 70 publications, including several books and book chapters, Kagan was recently in Karachi to attend the second edition of the Karachi Biennale and to give a keynote speech on the topic of arts and sustainability. I got the opportunity to interview him at the Biennale’s opening.
This interview focuses on Kagan’s research, his field and different aspects of arts and sustainability, and current as well as future projects of Sacha Kagan.
Maheen Aziz: Please tell me about your field and research.
Sacha Kagan: First of all, thanks a lot for your interest. My field is a bit difficult to describe it’s an inter- and transdisciplinary endeavor, which brings together many different fields like academic disciplines and the arts & humanities, so it’s a field which is in between the arts and the whole of question of sustainable development. I’m looking into artistic and cultural practices in general, so the arts in a very wide sense, it’s not only visual arts and performance like in the biennale right now, but also other forms of artistic and cultural performances that includes music, performing arts and other arts-related and cultural practices.
And this includes also cultural practices which are embedded in everyday, life like traditional and folk cultures of people, cinema and video, so it’s a very wide definition of cultural and artistic practices. The question then is: How do these practices relate to the complex issue of sustainable development? This means putting together and trying to think together, and to act about, the overlaps between ecological issues, economic issues concerned with economic development and the welfare of people, social issues concerned with social injustice and searching for social justice across social classes, and also other issues like questions of democracy, political issues, gender questions, cultural issues, etc. This is a wide field considering how artists are engaging the cultural and ecological issues together, where one can bring up insights from art history, cultural studies, humanities, with new fields like environmental humanities, and then also bring in insights from social sciences that interact with natural-sciences issues for example connected to climate change, or water management and other issues that are related to ecology. So it’s virtually a gigantic research field.
MA: What is your role in this?
SK: My role is to accompany, sometimes collaborate with, the artists and critically try to understand what roles artists can play in this complex field, which goes way beyond the art world and the arts as professional fields in a limited sense.
MA: How you started?
SK: I am the only non-artist in my family. From a young age I had strong interest in ecology, environmental issues and environmental problems, at some point I discovered one professor in Holland, Hans Dieleman, who was talking about art and sustainability that was back in 2000. I went there and stayed in Rotterdam (Holland) for a year when he was giving a course, then from 2005 onwards I went to Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany and started doing my own PhD research. Back then, only few people were researching on the topic, and it became my main interest. It allowed me to develop together my interest in the arts and in the the ecological issues. Sustainability is not about ecology only, it’s the root, but it connects ecology with the other issues and problems that humans face.
MA: Can you reveal a little about your speech at the Karachi Biennale?
SK: I’ll talk about ecological art, that is a movement that has existed already in the USA and other countries for a few decades already. I will be talking about artists working on ecology and especially on wetlands and cities. The lands on mangroves like around Karachi, water marshes, ponds, etc.: There is a great diversity of wetlands, and there is a complicated relationship between cities and wetlands. Cities are often constructed on the wetlands all around the world, most of the time destroying wetlands but also depending on them for water, biodiversity and ecosystem services that wetlands provide to a city, so the city has a complex relationship with the wetlands. On one hand needing them and depending on their ecologies, and on the other hand destroying them when the city expands. And sometimes wetlands come back when the climate changes. The relationships between wetlands and cities are complex and interesting as well. Some artists have been actually developing work about the wetlands either on the symbolic level, or working on it as a topic, or on a concrete level developing ecological projects, either for depolluting the cities or restoring the wetlands, or creating new parks like wetlands with water cleaning facilities, which is a public infrastructure for the city and is an artwork as well as a place for the public to gather… I will be talking about these kinds of artists.
MA: Research, surveys and reports say that the world is going to face dangerous climatic and environmental changes and there will be a time when there won’t be trees. How do you see this?
SK: Well I hope the latter is not going to happen because humans can’t find a replacement for tress, so when the trees are gone then the collapse, ecological consequences would be so bad for the human species to survive… Sustainability is to allow human society to continue to strive and continue to live in good conditions. If one want to have good conditions for a human society to develop over decades and centuries, we need to find solutions to these problems if not immediately, at least long-term solutions.
On the one hand, we need to limit the ecological damages and the climate change: People call this ‘climate mitigation’ – we are trying to minimize it. On the other hand, another aspect is ‘adaptation’ – how we will manage to be creative enough to better cope with the climate crisis
that comes in the future and already started coming. We have to be very creative in sense of adapting to the changes that are coming in the future, which I think won’t include the disappearance of all the trees as you mentioned, and we have to find new ways to compensate the damages that do happen.
MA: How can art contribute?
SK: Art can contribute to this in many ways; there are a lot of potential roles and many artists can feel relevant and can approach it in many ways, including symbolism. Some artists are working on imaginaries, working on the imaginaries of potential futures – which is not just one way because to find solutions we have to be creative to have multiple imaginaries and possibilities of solutions to respond to ecological crisis. So working on imaginations and opening them up is important and allowing people to be unconventional and break up the existing social conventions and habits and ways of living that we find so evident… and making the alternatives more attractive or interesting!
Artists can also work with NGOs, architects, engineers, social and civil servants etc. The artists can be multiplicators who can bring new and different perspectives, not just for the arts and artists but also for the entire city. In my current research I focus on, this is what I call ‘spaces of possibility in the city’.
MA: Art and sustainability is now becoming a focus of artists since the situation is in danger. How practical is this going to be as it won’t be commercially beneficial for the artists. What do you think?
SK: It’s a difficult question to answer directly because art is generally for most artists, not commercially viable. It is a fallacy or a lie to claim that an artist can survive commercially on art. There is a minority of artists who can survive commercially on art. I would say in economic terms, there are multiple ways in which artists can seek economic support. Sometimes this can be through arts-related activities, if art itself is not enough to support themselves or their families, so this can be commercial in other fields. If I talk about ecological artists, they have to find funding for their projects from funding sources from private companies and public organisations that are not only arts-related, or art foundations like galleries, museums, other forms of art funders… but also other forms of funding for urban development, academic or scientific projects, urban infrastructure funding. But then these other funders have to make a revolution in their own thinking, that they can also fund artists projects. Artists are also innovative and they can also work beyond the narrow field of the arts. For it to be viable also paying for the work that is done, this requires that many people are thinking in an innovative way. But it’s very challenging and difficult, not easy at all.
MA: You have been actively participating since 15 years in so many events in so many countries, what is your overall observation about art? Where do you see Pakistan’s art scene?
SK: To be honest, I am not knowledgeable enough about the art scene in Pakistan to say something intelligent enough. The only art scene in South Asia that I have a little contact with because I met some artists who are doing tremendous work, was in India. I met artists in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and they have been doing great work on art and ecology for the past decades. See the curator Pooja Sood in Delhi. And see Navjot Altaf, an artist from Mumbai, an eco-feminist artist who is also exhibiting at the Karachi Biennale, she also works with local communities. I have just arrived in Pakistan, and this is my first visit to Pakistan, so it’s too early for me to say something, I am still observing.
I am discovering and I am about to see the artworks of more Pakistani artists at the Biennale. There is a keynote speech on Monday about a historical Pakistani artist who had ecological concerns, so I am very much looking forward to hear about that artist.
MA: How much potential does art have in transforming and how is art playing a role of catalyst in sustainability?
SK: It’s a very wide question. One of the ways an artist or art can play a role is what I call ‘entrepreneurship in conventions’ and that means how artistic experiments can allow to empower and enable people, also non-artists who can participate, learn and participate in a project, if they find it attractive enough for taking part. This can allow people to move away from the normal experience and perception of reality, and from normal social practices and ways of acting and interacting in society. It allows to start experimenting, discovering and experiencing new ways, with new imaginations… And when these new practices might get interesting enough that people think that they can organize the city in a different way, as well as everyday lives, the work we do or the way a company operates, and give more attention to the ecological issues and causing less damage, then the arts has played the catalyst role when people start behaving, acting and thinking differently. It’s a difficult thing and it doesn’t start overnight, because transformation and changing habits and social conventions are very difficult. It doesn’t happen very fast and it doesn’t happen every time.
MA: How would you tap the side of the public which would contribute towards the change and bring sustainability?
SK: It can happen at different levels depending on the artists and art works involved. Some time you can reach the elites, who are in the government, businesses and other parts of the society who are the decision makers and can contribute to the changes of the policies and try to solve ecological issues; that is one aspect.
You can also, if I take the other extremity, with artists working with local communities, find ways to help the local communities to find better ways to cope with the ecological and environmental crisis, and find local solutions: better ways for communities to cope at their level. Like the artist Navjot Altaf, she was working over decades with a local community in Bastar, India, for example about water problems, with gender-conscious solutions also empowering
women. And in other cases you can also have practical solutions for local communities to envision alternative futures, to think and imagine for better futures. So this can go all the way from inspiring top-level decision makers, to the local communities, and this can also work in terms of urban development by trying to help form transversal developments, also with local activists, to try to help them going outside their usual work routines and hierarchies and classical divisions, and trying to work together and bring people together. It’s difficult to bring people from different horizons really together, from upper classes and locals, so they can collaborate together to find better solutions.
MA: How do you feel being a part of Karachi Biennale and how do you see Karachi Biennale?
SK: Well, I am very happy to be invited here, which is a great honour, and that the Biennale’s second edition already selected the theme ‘art & ecology’, strongly connected with the ecology of the city, Karachi, and addressed the ecological issues strongly. It’s very important for a prestigious event like an art biennale to make a strong point about it. So when I think of it as a whole it’s a commitment, effort and something admirable, that this biennale is focusing on ecology here.
I also appreciate that the Biennale is investing diverse public or semi-public spaces, like the park here, and especially the zoo. Bringing together very different parts of society, instead of expecting that non-art people will miraculously enter art galleries, requires a lot of work on common spaces and public spaces. This is a hard work, especially in Karachi I was told (where upper middle class retreated to private spaces, and different parts of society hardly meet anywhere), and the Biennale this year does an admirable effort in this direction. This needs to continue.
And then the Biennale allows us to discover some exemplary Pakistani artworks that bring attention to the city’s ecological systems, such as the ‘Mangrove Project’ shown at IVS.
MA: Do you face any difficulty while researching?
SK: It is difficult in 2 ways; in itself because it requires you to constantly engage with new fields and does not allow this comfort which you have in disciplinary research where you know about who you have to talk, who your peers are and what is your circle; in my field one is like a pirate who has to land on everyone’s field, and never feel at home. It is a challenge that I accept.
Secondly, many artists find it difficult to finance themselves and there is no easy answer to that. Whatever country you belong to, the existing funding system is not designed for such a transversal and innovative field of research, so you have to look for different places in order to fund yourself. It’s not easy at all.
MA: Tell me about the books that you have written.
SK: I did overall about 60 to 70 publications, including short and long articles, chapters, and a couple of books. Art and Sustainability was my main book that was issued in 2011, and then I wrote a smaller essay that was published by a German foundation (Boell Foundation) in 2012, Towards global (environ)mental change, in an easier language that was accessible to a wider audience. I have also co-edited a book in German in 2019 about the city and its spaces of possibilities, which was about the German city of Hanover. And there are a few chapters in other people’s books which are in English, for example about the notion of sustainability and urban imaginations.
MA: Are there any projects you are currently working on?
SK: I’m doing small activities right now but my latest big project was ‘city as space of possibilities’ which was a 3-year project about the city of Hanover in Germany. And that was to understand how the local artists, local communities, local businesses and, local administration of the city, collaborate to develop innovative approaches linking arts, culture and sustainable urban development.
This was a very empirical research looking at one city, 3 years long. In that city you had some open-minded experiments between the administration of the public authorities and the artists and the local people. This doesn’t happen everywhere because usually you have conflicts between the artists and local people and the administration and politics, because a city often has difficulties ‘thinking outside of the box’. Administrations and politicians need to learn to accept artistic critique, and to take more risks for uncertain arts-based experiments. Doing this beyond the borders of the designated ‘arts’ and ‘culture’ administration is key, and it is a very big challenge. Only few cities genuinely take that challenge.
MA: And what about future projects?
I hope to start new big projects soon, but it depends on the funding. One possibility of a project would be with jazz researchers in Austria, on ‘jazz and sustainability’. I would do it with a colleague at the music university in Graz, Austria.
Another possibility might be in Norway, around Oslo, it would be about designing rainwater gardens in the cities in relation to climate change. How the designs of such gardens and social activities around them can engage people into the futures of climate change.
A third one, still at the early conceptual stage, would be a collaboration with the city of Hanover, with a pilot project for two local cultural ‘neighborhoods’ centers of Hanover. The goal would be to allow a very diverse group of local inhabitants to themselves practice arts-based research, as a better form of ‘citizen science’, and as a way to better understand their own city.
MA: What is your advice to the people who want to pursue their career in your field?
SK: That’s a good question, which I believe I was never asked. Foremost, it’s a very interdisciplinary thing so you need to educate yourself about art-world related knowledge and education, and stay connected with the art world and events like biennales and music and anything that educates you in the arts.
Secondly, one has to have solid social and environmental knowledge in order to understand the issues like climate change and other issues one has to work on, and also at least a bit of knowledge about political science. So being in this field is a challenge as one has to study the social and economic and political sciences to understand the society and issues of the society, and on the other hand understand the arts and art world, art education. So the advice is to keep feet in both fields while you contribute to bring them together.
MA: Thank you so much Sacha for your time
SK: It was my pleasure!