If a design school like the Bauhaus was launched today, it would have eco-literacy as its foundation course
Images from Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus class, “The Human”
What is an effective, transformational response to our major crises from the arts? Always a question we’re asking.
Last week we ran a piece from MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito, which wondered what design might mean in a world where complex technological systems, as much as complex natural and bodily systems, compel creators to be more modest about their projects, and assume much less control and predictability over their impacts.
This week, the sustainability thinker John Thackera takes a different challenge to the world of arts and design. In his contribution to a new book of essays, John tries to answer the question: what would the foundation course be for a new kind of art school, in an ecologically crisis-ridden age? His starting point is specific and impressive - the legendary Bauhaus school in Germany.
John is particularly triggered by the Bauhausers’ love of abstraction - symbolised in the images of one of its key teachers, Oskar Schlemmer, and his class on “The Human” (see slideshow at the head of this post).
A preoccupation with the human being as an autonomous subject must have felt liberating at the time [of the Bauhaus, in the 1910s and 20s]. But today these images remind us of what we have lost: a sense of connection to each other, and with the living world.
Situated and embodied experiences that once gave us meaning – a sense of interdependency with living systems – are replaced in these images by abstraction and ecological indifference.
The sadness triggered by these images can be productive: they contain the seeds of a Vorkurs, or Foundation Course, to replace what has been lost.
This course would foster ecological literacy, and a whole-systems understanding of the world.
It would reunite two worlds that have been sundered: wisdom traditions from other places and times, and the latest insights of systems thinking and complexity science.
The course would expose students to complex interactions between life-forms, rocks, atmosphere, and water. It would help them discover that the entire Earth is animated by interactions among systems at different geographical and temporal scales.
The experience of mapping biotic communities would teach them that everything is connected – from sub-microscopic viruses, to the vast subsoil networks that support trees.
Art, in the new course, would ensure that students connect with living systems emotionally, and not just rationally.
By making students curious about “what we’re inside of”, in the words of Nora Bateson, art would teach students to explore complex interdependencies with joy – even when they remain perplexed.
By making them aware of the power of small actions to transform the bigger picture, art would also foster activity – not just awareness, or introspection.
Many core elements of such a course already exist. Pockets of vitality can be found wherever students are attentive to the relationships between living organisms and their environment.
Ilya Prigogene described such experiments as ‘small islands of coherence’ in an otherwise chaotic world.
Caring for life – and its interdependence with the nonhuman world – is a new source of value on these islands.
And because ecological practice involves new ways of thinking about connection, patterns and context, the new course would bring designers quite naturally in contact with adjacent disciplines such as climatology, hydrology, geography, psychology, history, and many more.
No textbook for the new foundation course exists – which is probably just as well. The course is better thought of as a journey, than as a body of knowledge.
The journey is neither short, nor easy. Its destination cannot be known in advance. No pathway has been laid to ease our way. And the autonomous individual is no longer the focus of the story.
“Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks” writes Gloria E. Anzaldúa. For her, life-centered design could as well be thought of as weaving, as walking. “We humans need to be nepantleras – bridge builders and reweavers of relationality”.