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Art and culture bring us existential awareness

Woman in a mirror. Photo.
Art and culture can touch us on new levels that provide new perspectives and new issues. Photo: iStockphoto

Art and culture have the capacity to make us aware of our relationship to ourselves and others, our world and our time. Using existential sustainability as an umbrella term, we can investigate new angles and open the way for new collaborations, according to Anna Lyrevik, senior adviser to the Vice-Chancellor, who has broad experience of delivering cultural projects in various forms.

“My mission is finding a better balance between the different kinds of knowledge, one where those that are not based on words can become an equally useful source of knowledge. Art is an important part of how people live, survive and muster energy for actions and understanding.”

So, how can we work with art and culture to incorporate other perspectives? In a number of areas, a cultural dimension in various kinds of sustainability work has been a given. Anna Lyrevik points to the work to establish the Vombsjösänkan Reserve in Skåne, which could become the world’s first biosphere reserve to integrate cultural dimensions, as an example. If the application is approved by UNESCO, the area could become an international model project, the first to apply cultural elements to various forms of collaboration with the public, academia, business and the public sector.

“We are now in a new phase that demands other perspectives on knowledge. Existential sustainability elicits both questions and curiosity. That’s a good start,” says Anna Lyrevik.

Thoughts about existential sustainability at Lund University have sprung from, and been integrated with, long-term work to bring greater investments in cultural and creative industries. The aim is to secure EU financing for this specialism in teaching, research, and innovation. Alongside more than 100 partners from across Europe, an application has now been submitted for the world’s largest investment in the cultural and creative sectors and industries.  

The consortium which the EU declare a KIC – Knowledge and Innovation Community – could receive up to SEK 800 million per annum over 15 years. Companies, regions, cities, higher education and cultural institutions have come together in order to be part of the large investment. Lund University is the sole Swedish member of the consortium, “Creative Futures.” The consortium will be informed this summer whether they are to lead the venture. Regardless of that decision, there will be a clear increase in activities in cultural and creative industries in which existential sustainability will be aired.    

Birgitta Persson
Existential sustainability can be a guide, a concept that gathers us around basic values ​​to be able to make major changes, in the whole society, says Birgitta Persson. Photo: Bodil Malmström

A clear change of direction is necessary

We live in an age of contradictions – with sources of anxiety piling up at the same time as most things carry on as normal. On an intellectual level, we understand that humans have created the situation we find ourselves in and that at the same time, we are ourselves pivotal to change. It is clear that facts alone are not sufficient to make us change course, we need to be moved, shaken, and yet feel that there is hope and meaning in change.    

Reflections on existential sustainability can be used in concrete ways and in the quest for new direction, meaning and affinity, according to Birgitta Persson, project manager at Future by Lund, an information platform which has aligned itself with Lund University in “Creative Futures”. She explains that when she starts talking about existential sustainability, it often catches the attention of those listening. Many state it as the basis and the reason for their being so involved.

“In times of crisis and emergencies that demand new solutions, it is important that our priorities and decisions are rooted in values. Existential sustainability can be a signpost, a concept that gathers us around fundamental values in order to be able to undertake huge transformations across society,” explains Birgitta Persson.

The art of evoking an emotional response

When we talk about things we know, we often use concepts that are grounded in a cognitive understanding – that we understand something through our own wits, through active thought. There are, however, other routes into our consciousness and comprehension that can come via emotional, spiritual, or physical sensations.

“Art and culture can affect us on completely different levels, shaking us, worrying and shocking us. That can give us new perspectives, creating new lines of inquiry and challenging us,” suggests Birgitta Persson, who has many years’ experience of leading and developing large artistic and cultural projects.

She argues that we sometimes need am emotional or physical experience of an event in order to really be able to process and understand it on a more meaningful level. Art has that potential to move us in differing ways and to give us the opportunity to investigate and find new perspectives through several different senses. Existential sustainability can be a useful compass here. We cannot simply rely on technology and clever solutions for a sustainable future. A more holistic view of human existence and our interplay with other creatures and species on our planet is necessary – one that takes account of the past, present and future.

Nature’s narrative

Among peoples that live close to nature, there are often stories about the surrounding landscape, about animals and plants that are part of their cultural identity and tradition. In songs, art or in oral and written sources, there is a lot of knowledge about interplay and vulnerability as well as what is required for existence to continue in equilibrium. The storytelling may include a moral that serves to communicate understanding of the ecosystem and the importance of being prudent.  

Our time needs new stories, new insights and hope. Can we use existential sustainability to open ourselves to new possibilities and illuminate new, unexplored paths and dimensions? The modern myth that humanity is the pinnacle of creation and master of the planet might need to be rethought.  

“We need to understand and rediscover how we interact with the rest of our living planet. Holistic thinking is complex and is more about the relationships between all parts of a system, not so much about ones and zeros,” Birgitta Persson argues.

She also notes that the concept of existential sustainability attracts interdisciplinary research and collaborations, both within and outside of the University. Right now, things are bubbling up in many different areas where Lund University and Future by Lund are working to develop the concept; to identify how different areas of innovation can be strengthened and new ones established. Various themes and concrete projects may emerge from there.