FROM APOCALYPSE TO UTOPIA
For Cultures of Resilience I have described my work with different groups of people to explore ideas in action. Having helped persuade UAL to divest £3.9 million from fossil fuel, I am inviting staff and students to join me in building a working model of our university as a not-for-profit, co-operative social enterprise. The new social form I am aiming for is a university that infuses art and design with ecological thinking to become more democratic, resilient and sustainable.
As this project engages with an actual situation to make a concrete proposition, and as it has achieved quantifiable results, it could be framed in terms of an expanded conception of design. Yet its paradoxical combination of open-ended utopian impulse with an exploration of psychological and ideological denial is more closely aligned with the ambiguities and dialectical tendencies of fine art.
For me, this process has been punctuated by a series of surprising ‘moments’ and ‘encounters’. Having proposed that UAL should switch banks, I was called to explain myself in a closed meeting, which was concluded when a university director mused, “if we started to ask ethical questions, where would it lead?” Yet in a committee of readers and professors, my proposal to creatively address the university’s different values, and overcome the separation between academic and operational matters to take collective action on climate change was met with applause.
On a day of sunshine and creative public sociability, I staged a cathartic performance, caricaturing myself as a zombie academic. While reactions from colleagues and students ranged from studied indifference to thinly veiled disgust, children seemed delighted by the macabre spectacle (though whether they appreciated the morbid warning about the destruction of intergenerational equity was unclear).
Later, when the small group of students with whom I have been campaigning for UAL to divest from fossil fuels staged a ‘die-in’ on university premises, I was moved by their courage to be vulnerable in a context where strength is celebrated, and to touch on the fear of death in a place where positive thinking prevails.
Our institution and our practices of art and design education have a major part to play in the transition towards a more just and sustainable society. It may be possible to design ways to weave people and places together. But perhaps the bonds of community will be more resistant to neoliberalism if we can combine creativity with criticality, and acknowledge different interests between us, and conflicting impulses within us.