Ethics of resourcing creativity

This is based on a talk I gave in an event for artists about fundraising called Money Talks organised by Arts Admin and the Live Arts Development Agency. The other speakers were Deborah Curtis, who has crowdfunded for the House of Fairy Tales, and Sarah Strang, who has been artist in residence for city solicitors Simmons & Simmons.

This is a version of what I said:

Rather than talking about how to make money, which I accept would be useful, I’m talking about the ethics of resourcing creative practice. If I have any practical pointers they are more in an ecological reframing of money. I’m suggesting a redirection in the ways that artists might work as agents for ecological innovation and in turn enable them to eat. And in this I’m flipping the title: Maybe creative practice is the most ethical and effective way to resource life?

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.” Kurt Vonnegut

I run a consultancy company (Flow) that works with cultural organisations. A lot of this work is looking at how cultural organisations can remain relevant in changing times, helping them fundraise and evaluating their impact for funders. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ethical fundamentals of this, leading me to be increasingly vocal about climate politics and, for example, about the ethics of oil sponsorship in culture. I’m literally vocal now, in that I sing with Shell Out Sounds. So, I’m going through a transition which is how to be even more directly involved in creative ecological practice, while being more ethical and managing to support a family in London. For me, creative, political and ecological actions are essential parts of daily life. As Beuys said, “Art alone makes life possible” and planting trees were for him a creative act.

I run a project called Beuysterous which aims to encourage the planting, care and sustainable use of trees by promoting creative actions and the inspirations of artists (not just Beuys but people like Anne-Marie Culhane and more). The name was invented by my daughter who realised it could mean being ‘creatively boisterous’, resilient in the face of climate change.

I’m also involved in the Dark Mountain project which provides space for artists to question the growth narrative and to explore new narratives. It’s an intermingling of memes around optimistic transition and an acceptance of (some form of) collapse. Incidentally, they raise funds by selling publications and drawing on their network of support, including a current auction on EBay.

Dougald Hine, one of its manifesto writers, is writing a book about collapsonomics, which he describes as ‘what will still work when the systems we rely on break down’. In a piece on the Future of Employment, he suggested we categorise the different needs we have, to think about why we work. There are three dimensions:

  1. Economic/Practical: How do I pay the rent?
  2. Social/Psychological: Who am I in the eyes of others? How do I relate to other humans?
  3. Directional: What do I get out of bed for in the morning? And where do I see myself in the future?

My suggestion is that the Directional now has to be Environmental. We need to ask: ‘I want to see myself (and biodiverse life in general) existing in the future, so what work can I do to make that happen?’

There is absolutely no other direction that matters.

We can link Dougald’s three purposes of work to the famous triad of sustainability. Usually these are considered to be held in balance when you make decisions. We wrongly see the ecosystem as a mere subcomponent of our ‘economy’. We juggle the three balls of social, economic and environmental sustainability, usually justifying destruction of the environment to create false economic and social sustainability, and offsetting or greenwashing to make up for it. But if survival is our direction, then generating biosphere capital has to be the prime goal of any social or economic constitution, and therefore of any creative practice or cultural organisation. Instead of juggling the three balls, they need to be integrated, so that life is bearable, viable and equitable. Oikonomics is my umbrella term for ecological economics where this direction is at the centre. The original meaning of ‘eco’ is from ‘oikeios’, or favourable place/habitat.

The Oikonomic tasks for artists and culture are…

1. Economic/Practical: Oikonomic valuation and organisation of culture

2. Social/Psychological: Eco-social repair, therapy and building of connections

3. Environmental/Directional: Planetary Sculpture (Inspired by Beuys’ Social Sculpture, a reinvention for today)

1. An Oikonomic valuation of culture emphasises how it…

  • Manages loss of oikeios
  • Helps remake oikeios (favourable places)
  • Conserves artefacts and knowledge from lost oikeios
  • Virtual imaginings of oikeios
  • Visions of how to live in radically changed oikeios

Oikonomic organisation of culture honours these values (and doesn’t, for example, allow companies to offset their ecocidal normative action through investing in culture). I’ve written more about an oikonomic valuation of culture here.

A good example of organising artistic practice in ways that honour these values is the Foraged Book project by forager Fergus Drennan and artist James Wood. Another is the Fruit Routes project (pictured) led by Anne-Marie Culhane.

fruit routes

2. A more Oikonomic cultural sector can effect eco-social repair through…

  • Therapy as we experience loss
  • Helping us avoid conflict as resources dwindle
  • Remaking the ways we constitute organisations
  • Rethinking our relationships and values
  • Learning from the wild (e.g. from mychorrizal networks)


Assembly at the Old Tidemill School in Deptford is an example of organisation that is modelling ways of using community assets for social wellbeing. A new Tidemill school has been built nearby (a shiny primary academy), leaving the old one temporarily occupied by guardians, who are all creative practitioners. Owen Hodgkinson is one of the founders, pictured centre. They are regenerating the garden, playground and school assembly hall as places for community wellbeing – for gardening, learning about medicinal plants, exploratory play, forest school workshops and much more. They are hoping to conserve the garden from future development as it had been earmarked as space for housing. Deptford is undergoing significant development and there is a risk of losing its small hidden gardens. The image is of a workshop I led there, creating an installation based on the functions of mychorrizal fungal networks, enabling us to share ideas on how we build community resilience.

3. Some tasks of artists as planetary sculptors

There are many possible tasks to list here, but these seem to me to be the ultimate significant jobs of planetary engineering that anybody can undertake without being in a highly funded research organisation. Artists and designers may have the right capacities to turn to these tasks, because they have learned at least the basic principles of being experimental with materials and systems. I accept that an artistic training doesn’t equip you directly to do the following, but maybe this can change:

  • Regenerative agriculture/permaculture: plant trees, prevent erosion, remineralise soil, replenish aquifers, sequester CO2 & produce food efficiently
  • Work with fungi: detoxify PCBs, alternative to plastic
  • Conservation technologies: designing products and systems so that they work more symbiotically and reduce energy consumption and loss
  • Healing & wellbeing: working with intelligence of nature
  • Politics: Resisting ecocide and encouraging natural infrastructure
  • Relanguaging: Finding new metaphors so that we develop an ecological way of knowing
  • Socialstructing: Forming social systems that aid planetary sculpture
  • As part of the above work, we need to prioritise regeneration or greening of land, then conservation of existing wild land:

triage for planet sculpture

That last little word in the red triangle is ‘offsetting’, something the UK Government is very excited about. They believe that development projects can maintain environmental credits by replacing ancient or wild habitats with new displaced ones. Offsetting is a useful process but it should not be the default for environmental sustainability.

A good example of a project where an artist undertakes an act of planetary sculpture, is Woollen Line by Pip Woolf. She is attempting to heal a peat hillside, exposed by fire, by protecting it with discarded sheep’s wool. She works closely with the community, holding gatherings and meals to share art, food and ideas. Her artistic material is gleaned and gathered and shared back again to replenish the landscape and community.

pip woolf

To conclude:

  • Oikonomics are a possible way to overcome the binary argument of art as either having instrumental value or pure aesthetic value. Art has to be economic, but economics don’t have to be about greed, consumption and planetary death.
  • Oikonomics show that there are ways to be an artist that allow you to eat and to increase the capacity for people to eat in future
  • The challenge is to change our cultural institutions, artistic training and funding systems to support an Oikonomic approach.

The discussion led us into talk about corporate responsibility, and whether you should just take ‘any money and run’. Deborah suggested that you could take any money but you then have a responsibility to engage with the giver, to help change their corporate culture. I think it’s important to draw the line, based on research and reflection, on from where you will stop taking money. I believe that profiting from fossil fuels is one big line that artists need to draw. This booklet ‘Take the Money and Run?’ has just been produced by Platform and LADA, which may help you think about your position.


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