The Networked Condition: Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline Case Study

Wed 22 Feb 2023

At the start of 2020, we began working with Arts Catalyst and Fast Familiar on The Networked Condition: Environmental Impacts of Digital Cultural Production, a collaborative research project exploring digital arts through an environmental lens.

The project is part of The Accelerator Programme (led by Julie’s Bicycle and Arts Council England), which helps artists to advance their sustainable practice and share insights with their peers and the wider sector.

As part of The Networked Condition, we’ve been speaking to artists and arts organisations whose work encompasses digital tools and environmental sustainability or activism, gaining insight into a range of ideas and approaches. We’re documenting these studies as we go along, as a source of shared knowledge, inspiration and reflection for others.

Here, we talk to Dr Dani Admiss about her project, Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline. 

Dr Dani Admiss (she/her) is a British-Assyrian Iranian independent curator and researcher based in Edinburgh. She uses social practices to develop projects with everyday people to voice their stories and reimagine narratives of science, technology and colonialism.

In 2020 she founded Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline, a community learning and climate justice project exploring just transition in the arts. Dani has has curated projects and published across the UK, Europe and internationally. She is an Artangel Making Time resident (2023) and was a Stanley Picker Fellow (2020).

In September 2022, The Networked Condition partnered with Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline on ‘Digital Decarbonisation Consensus and Conjectures’, a workshop to create a collective and constructive public statement imagining a future for climate action in art + technology. The workshop was led by Anne Pasek, Professor at Trent University in Canada, who brought together 24 stakeholders in the arts and technology sector to evaluate the challenges and opportunities they face at the conjuncture of digital technologies and environmental justice.

Participants proposed, reviewed, and debated different proposals for climate action in their sector, mapping the political and material impacts of digital decarbonisation strategies on workers, communities, institutions, and the climate. The outcome is a consensus statement that diagnoses the intersecting problems at hand and proposes clear directions for stakeholders going forward.

The statement advances through multiple tactics and registers, without affirming the superiority of a single course, regardless of local contexts and capacities. It can be downloaded and used as a free resource by any art worker in their own transition journeys.

Dani, can you tell us about the intentions behind the Sunlight project and the key questions it seeks to ask?

I was awarded the Stanley Picker Fellowship in Spring 2020, coinciding with the first Covid-19 lockdown. At that time, most of my work commitments had been cancelled or kicked down the road until a later date but I had also been given this gift of a substantial period to research and make work. Pretty early on I realised that there would be no return to “normal”. In the UK, life before the pandemic was a way of being sustained by harmful social and ecological processes and huge amounts of suffering had (and continues) to take place. Arundhati Roy tells us that the Pandemic is a portal. A gateway in which many of us have the choice to walk through it and imagine our world anew. I knew my approach to the Fellowship had to change as well. 

I went to [Stanley Picker] and asked the question “How can I be of use?” and we ended up having a series of discussions about what was important to the gallery, which mainly focused on the upcoming Arts Council England (ACE) national portfolio funding round and current carbon reporting requirements. As a regularly funded organisation with ACE, you have to report the carbon emissions of your business every year and develop an environmental action plan that responds accordingly. We spoke about this and the huge shifts in public funding coming down the proverbial pipeline for the UK in the wake of 14 years of government-imposed austerity politics. This made me ask: actually, how can you decarbonise a gallery? I quickly realised that there is no guide for this, which was informative in and of itself.  

The stories science and technology tell the world are frequently at odds with our own narratives and lived experiences. In my work I am drawn to extreme examples of this, what people call epistemic injustice: when a community’s ability to express their subjectivity and communicate their beliefs and interpretations have been repressed by an institution or bigger power. Decarbonisation is such a story. At the start of 2023 it appears that everyone in charge, from politicians to CEOs, are caught up in a deep and reckless climate denial. It was recently announced that the next president of COP28 will be headed up by Sultan Al Jaber, chief of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. At the same time, in boardrooms, parliaments, and universities all over the world CEOs, academics and politicians are currently planning how their citizens will transition from a high carbon lifestyle, dependent on capitalistic enclosures and extraction, to a low-carbon world.

When you research any of these pathways in depth you quickly realise that many have trade-offs and uncertainties—from the financialization of nature to a market-based and extractive approach to the environment, each ignoring the varied multi-perspectival approaches needed. Transition and decarbonisation are narratives being told in ‘our’ name but as so many of us are not part of that story, unevenly and violently so, we are being wronged in our capacity as knowers and citizens.

Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline is an art, climate justice and collaborative learning project that brings together varied and diverse art workers (artists, freelancers, art administrators, managers, agitators) to think about what transitioning to a low-carbon planet in a socially just way might look like in the creative arts sector and beyond. Over two years, a coalition of art workers, growers, dream weavers, care givers, healers, story tellers, agitators, and engineers, came together with local community groups and organisations, in co-creation workshops, labs, community learning activities, and as part of a Festival to co-create a Holistic Decarbonisation Plan for the art sector and beyond.

At the heart of Sunlight is the question, how can you build and support a community that is also a circle of influence that works from the bottom up? The Holistic Decarbonisation Plan comprises 10 commissioned artist research projects. They exist on the website as a set of creative and useful resources in the forms of interviews, case studies, essays, texts and policies about remembering and histories of fossil fuels, about reparation, about literacy, intergenerational wealth, colonial and institutional haunt, technological governance and more. 

 The project brings together people from a range of fields and disciplines. Could you tell us about how you assembled this network of collaborators and how this shaped the scope and ambition of the project?

I have a curatorial background and for over a decade I have worked, in an independent capacity, to use my role as a cultural gatekeeper to build spaces of literacy and sociality with others towards social change. Over this time, I have gathered and adapted a set of social practice tools and technologies that span co-creation, peer-to-peer, labs, collaborative storytelling, commissioning etc. My practice is slow, process-based and made-with-others. My work is the people I collaborate with, not the objects they make. Rather than think about a finished outcome, I am always interested in using social technologies to find ways to bring together what I call in-world experts and everyday communities, so that they can share different ways of knowing, doing and being.

My goal in this type of work is never a repetition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake but the kind of collective knowing that can awaken a knowing subject and which can hopefully influence or bring forth a personal, collective social and political change.

 In Sunlight I always knew that the Holistic Decarbonisation Plan would come out of a series of artistic and community-based research projects and that they would, in turn, employ peer-to-peer learning and co-creation. This is purposeful because the message is that we are building these stories of transition from the bottom up. The commissions start from a place that acknowledges that none of us are technical “experts” on the climate but many of us are deeply invested in our natural environments and ecosystems, whether this is communities or landscapes. People, as opposed to walled off institutions, are the holders of knowledge. With each commission I worked to support the artist to reach out to people who are embedded in a particular area and who have worked for a long time in these contexts, whose stories need to be told right now. It is not about centralising this knowledge but creating collective capacity to face the uncertainty and complexity of what lies ahead.

Working this way requires trying to always act with relational integrity. For Sunlight it involved actively listening to all the artists and stakeholders involved, checking in about what was useful and pleasurable for them. Each part of the Plan reflects the artist’s and local communities’ needs and desires at that moment. It goes without saying that this mode of working requires a lot of trust, emotional labour and a carefully nurtured network of friendships that are not built on preconceived outcomes determined by either side but in which everyone benefits. I really believe in finding ways of working that interrupt the art and cultural sector’s tendency for extractive and colonial hierarchies of value and power. Most art organisations are not set up that way at all. A lot needs to change for this mode of working to scale.  

The Digital Decarbonisation Consensus and Conjectures Workshop was structured as a working group which created space to think together about some of the fundamental questions and challenges facing the arts sector. How can self-organised collective work play a role in a more ecologically responsible future for the sector?

I’d like to answer this in two ways:

I am going to direct readers to the ‘Digital Decarbonisation Consensus and Conjectures’ Statement. It is written by Dr Anne Pasek and captures the thoughts and ideas of an inspirational group of stakeholders in the art and technology sector. By showing you what we did, I hope it goes some way to answer your question.

Secondly, I would like to zoom out to give you an example of art-as-strategy. In October, we held a Community Festival where various parts of the Holistic Decarbonisation Plan were presented to audiences and local community groups connected to the Stanley Picker Gallery. Everyone was invited to take part in a community vote, choosing which projects should be prioritised as part of the gallery’s Environmental Policy priorities for the next 3 years (2023-2027). The three projects chosen were The Anti-Offsetting Primer, Open Curriculum and Our Community Inheritance. Through talks and discussions with the commissioned artists and local stakeholders, Stanley Picker Gallery has now implemented various changes to how they approach decarbonisation in their work. The gallery has set up a Community Forum, a monthly meeting for local residents, Stanley Picker Gallery and Kingston University staff and students to share their desires and challenges with the aim to strengthen bonds with their local community and, in the future, work towards co-created programmes that respond to their needs.

Stanley Picker Gallery will also help facilitate a Training Programme for skill and capacity-building. The idea is that this programme takes place outside of art and education institutions because it is about supporting and facilitating a space for community learning to help “direct” art workers practise towards a more Just Transition. Thirdly, Stanley Picker Gallery will be involved in the Sunlight Liberation Network, a support group for climate justice and art workers to have a safe space to continue the emotional and intellectual work needed for artwork in uncertain times.

Whilst there is an urgent need for artists, cultural workers and organisations to reduce the carbon footprint of their work, the responsibility to become carbon-literate is limited by the funding opportunities, training and tools available to the sector. Both Sunlight and The Networked Condition aim to address this in different ways. How could conversations and actions towards decarbonising the sector become more accessible and implementable at scale?

One outcome of the colonisation and bureaucratisation of our lifeworlds is that “expert” decarbonisation pathways laid out for us in society clash with what is broadly understood as a Just Transition. For example, public facing art & climate programming produced by UK art organisations—which call for just futures—and the sustainability policies, such as carbon offsetting by way of the UK Government and Arts Council England, are incompatible.

Carbon offsetting is a flawed policy tool that allows polluters to compensate for carbon dioxide emissions arising from industrial and other human activity. It allows the Global North to continue pillaging and polluting in exchange for money that flows back to elites. However, the world is not a 1:1 model, and a Just Future requires the dignity and support of people and the planet. In a society where scientific over all other knowledge systems rule, we all lose.

Decarbonisation is not enough. I believe reckoning with a ‘reciprocal relationality’ is vital for a Just Transition in the arts and beyond. It includes understanding the histories that place us where we are, the relations that we inherit, as well as the webs of relations that benefit us in the present. It requires those of us working in the art and culture sector to actively rehearse spaces for other ways of being and knowing to flourish against governmental, economic, bureaucratic, and techno-scientific institutions of power. It requires the creativity to do this and the courage to refuse certain modes of being and doing that make us as a society unwell.

The climate catastrophe is political. I don’t see enough people in positions of privilege and power in the arts refusing ways of working that perpetuate these cycles of extraction and exploitation.

Are there particular strands of work emerging from the Consensus Statement that you are focussing on next with Sunlight?

Since our Festival in October, the Sunlight coalition has been meeting with its stakeholders to reflect on the project findings and talk about what is needed for art work (and living) in uncertain times. I was shocked by how many participants in the project, people whose careers are entirely self-determined and self-motivated, feel disempowered to act. People told me that they often feel helpless and infantilised, paralysed by what decisions to make. Sunlight demonstrated the need for climate justice work in the arts and that many are living with the difficulty to care for ourselves on individual and societal levels.

It is hard to face up to the idea that our socialisation in modern societies has not adequately prepared us to engage with wicked global challenges.

To understand this more deeply, and how we might support each other to take action in ways that are reparative and healing, we are currently developing the Sunlight Liberation Network, a radical social and emotional support and learning group for art and climate justice workers. We are seeking practices and tools to help us notice ways we can begin to unlearn the desires that make us unwell, learn to desire something different and support ourselves and each other to live with the precarity and uncertainty that lies ahead.

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