Reset #4: Scott Ludlam – Art, Culture, Ecosystem

Thursday 15 July 2021 Bradley Forum (H5-02), Hawke Building, City West Campus

Scott Ludlam: Full Circle and the Art of Panarchy

The word ecosystem gets used a lot in arts and culture, in different and sometimes opposing ways. To help us think through this, Reset #4 hosted Scott Ludlam in a conversation about the ideas he proposes in his new book, Full Circle, and their relevance to the cultural sector. Scott was a senator from 2008 to 2017 and served as deputy leader of the Australian Greens. He formerly worked as a filmmaker, artist and graphic designer and now resides on the south coast of NSW as a full-time writer, activist and troublemaker. Full Circle takes a panoramic view of the planetary ecosystem, where nature, culture and history run together.

In his talk, Scott drew on his book, to introduce concepts of industrial metabolism, adaptive cycles and panarchy into the mix, using systems theory and movement history to provoke a conversation about how the arts can take a central role in the emerging global network of social movements.

Scott Ludlam: Questions of climate and energy transitions have long been considered the domain of technologists and policymakers, engineers and executives. And so now we stand at the brink of collapse, with old systems buckling and novel ones yet to breach the armour of state capture. Now is the time for fresh imagination and radical ideas: that’s the domain of artists and cultural practitioners.

Art, Culture, Metabolism

We were struck by Scott’s account of ‘urban metabolism’, a graphic imagining of the throughput of materials, energy, and finance through a quiet suburban street. In the book and in his talk Scott encourages us to imagine the often invisible resources in – resources out of an average group of people. Food for humans and animals, energy for heating and cooling, human and materials waste, recycling efforts. How many chickens does a group of homes go through in a year? How much water? The concept of the urban metabolism encourages the reader to think a bit differently about the balance of consumption in their immediate environment. For Reset #4, we wanted to extend this from the suburban household scenario to the arts and culture sector. How might we think of a cultural metabolism?

For many years, the ‘creative industries’ were presented as a ‘weightless’, ‘clean’, post-industrial, service-based sector running on endlessly renewable creativity. Less so now. Communication and computing systems (transport, cables, telephony, hardware) rely on servers under the Utah desert, lithium and rare earths dug up mines across the globe, and assembly in factories with dubious labour conditions and environmental regulation. This is before we get to the global networks of shipping and freighting behind ‘click and collect’. What we call ‘cultural manufacturing’ – furniture, clothing and textile, ceramics, glassware, jewellery, printing – rapidly declined in Australia from the 1990s, but we still consume more of these than ever before, all shipped in. Theatres and live venues, exhibitions and museums, music and screen production – all rely on a range of material supplies, formerly made locally by skilled artisans. Then there is audience travel, the globe-trotting of artists and tourists, and the range of consumption practices in hospitality and accommodation.

What would Adelaide or Regional South Australia look like through such the lens of our ‘cultural metabolism’? What implication might this have for arts and cultural policy? The response of the cultural sector has to be more than gestures to ‘sustainability’, welcome as are the efforts towards recycling and carbon-neutral buildings and events. It demands a more fundamental rethink. 

Green New Deal for Culture?

In addition to the growing awareness of the climate emergency and the need for rapid de-carbonisation, the pandemic has made us reconsider long, less secure global supply chains, local making capacities in manufacturing and agriculture, and the importance of locally provided essential services. The various versions of a Green New Deal all link state investment, green jobs and social equity, in which the emphasis has shifted to providing basic social services and infrastructures which we call ‘foundational’.

The cultural sector needs to understand how its own metabolism is implicated in the wider crisis of sustainability. This will be difficult to achieve whilst culture is seen as an ‘industry’ whose main objective is growth (such as more tourists and international visitors) rather than an essential part of providing foundational cultural services and infrastructures. It needs to regain the language of public value in order for it to make a full transition to a sustainability and social equity agenda.

Localising the Cultural Metabolism

Job losses in the cultural industries have been highest in area of manufacture – printing, clothing, retail and wholesale distribution. But digitalisation does not mean de-materialisation, more a radical restructuring of the cultural economy around monopoly platforms. We might start to think about the metabolism of the material cultural economy in terms akin to those around ‘circular economies’, and the built infrastructure as in-fill and retrofit rather than rebuild (see Reset#5). To what extent does the disappearance of local making and supply impact on the kinds of culture that gets produced, the kinds of skills it fosters, and the changing understanding of the role of culture in our concepts of the sustainable city? How can the emphasis on increased participation and social equity in the cultural sector intersect with a new vision of how we make culture in the sustainable city?

Ecosystem, Panarchy, Adaptive cycles

‘Ecosystem’ is often used in the cultural sector – as a combination of complexity, ‘organic’ spontaneous (self) organisation, or sometimes just ‘networks’. Full Circle talks a lot about the way these systems are not static but change and adapt in ways that are hard to predict – ‘panarchy’. Scott’s book confronts how we might create radical change in the face of the current existential threat.

Scott uses the term panarchy to think about frameworks for social and political organisation that can account for the complexity of networks of people and the natural environments in which they live and upon which they depend. This complexity often extends to being contradictory but also built on adaptive cycles of change which lead to fundamental system reorganizations.

If we are in the phase of the adaptive cycle in which we are between the old, failing system, and emergent forms of a new – many of us in the seminar asked how art and culture featured in this? We might radically reorient the production of art and culture to take into account sustainability, ‘green jobs’ and social equity, but role do artists play in this adaptive phase? The answer lies somewhere in the recognition that culture is our collective imaginary, and it is the stage on which our vision for the future will be decided. How we produce culture and how we imagine the future are part of the same process, something we are beginning to learn here from aboriginal communities.

Art and Planetary Ecosystem

Culture used to be described as everything that which was not nature. Human societies were ‘cultural’ insofar as they passed on learning and understanding, not biological behavioural traits. We don’t tend to think like that anymore. Not only because we know how entangled we are with animals and things in the world, but also because a belief in man’s mastery over nature has helped bring us to this crisis.

Scott’s book has a kind of poetic thread running through it. He structures an account of his own activist journey and the rise of extractive capitalism around a story of the emergence of life on earth. From Escherichia Coli to our own evolved present, we seek nourishment, containment, memory. But there is more here. It is related to aesthetics as patterning and as beauty, giving voice to life itself, in a way that recalls many of the deepest impulses toward the expressive act that we call art. We know it is fundamental to all human societies. This need not place ‘man’ at the apex of the evolutionary ladder, but instead re-affirm our task as custodians, of speaking the beauty of life, that we are charged with whilst still alive on the planet.

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