The pseudo-sustainability of speculative aesthetics

In November last year, IKEA’s research and design lab, SPACE10, held a lecture called Designing Beyond Earth aiming to examine a ‘more sustainable way of creating permanent infrastructure on the Moon and Mars,’ as part a series of events exploring a ‘better future of everyday life’. The lecture’s page featured a 3D render of a translucent pyramid set against an otherworldly red-desert landscape.

The scene feels familiar, not only because it reflects the creative industries’ current fixation with the future but also because, paradoxically, it creates nostalgia for a time when the interdisciplinary possibilities of science, technology and creativity were more optimistic. Rather than an abstract—albeit colonial—sci-fi imaginary, space settlement is now an inescapability, the inevitable function of the stockpiled wealth and egotism of a handful of billionaires. Though shrouded in cathartic nostalgia, SPACE10 projects an image of space colonization, and indeed a way of envisioning the future more broadly, which generates a misplaced optimism in the radical possibilities of ‘sustainable’ design without ever questioning the autocracy of neoliberal capitalism.

A scroll through SPACE10’s website presents various iterations of a utopic, sustainable future generated from the interdisciplinary promise of art and technology, design and science. A pastel-hued, hyperrealist 3D video shows a blue figure meditating to an electroacoustic score, accompanied by an article suggesting an image of our bodies as smart homes. A panelled glass installation covered with galaxy-like white dots uses ‘creative code’ to visualise climate change. The dots show which locations are most exposed to certain climate stressors, like floods and drought, in a bid to make the ecological emergency ‘feel less abstract.’ At first glance, the installation reflects what Rob Nixon calls the ‘slow violence’ of the ecological emergency, where most of its effects unfold out of sight, gradually dispersed across time and space. Yet slow violence is part and parcel of neoliberalism, where outsourced toxicity, petro-capitalism and scaled-back state support mean that ecological degradation disproportionately affects the global poor.

While claiming to address abstraction, SPACE10’s project fails to visualise the most concrete and lived condition of exposure to ecological violence—economic status. Given the lab is owned by a furniture conglomerate worth billions, visualising the ecological emergency through the lens of class would be bad PR. Instead, climate politics is reduced to the liberal navel-gazing project of raising awareness, reliant on our collective nostalgia for the utopian possibilities of art and science. In their interdisciplinary sensibility, brands like IKEA cultivate an aesthetic aura of sustainability detached from their role in ecologically violent economic processes. SPACE10’s Spatial Design Lead inadvertently exposes this contradiction when—describing the process of creating ‘impact maps’ to show how specific locations were more exposed to ecological violence—they reflect how the ‘challenging process makes them even more exciting, and beautiful.’

For art historian Pamela M Lee, speculative, or what she calls ‘think tank’ aesthetics have been used to justify neoliberal logic since the RAND Corporation in the Cold War. In her 2020 book Think Tank Aesthetics, she examines the US military think tanks’ peculiar history of collaborating with artists. Fixated with the collaborative possibilities of technology and art, RAND popularised a vague interdisciplinary aesthetic with a nod towards the utopian promise of creativity. This, Lee argues, obscured the violence of Cold War espionage along with the gradual merging of state and capital under neoliberalism.

In a cultural present defined by the environmental crisis, the radical possibilities of creativity are no longer enough. Creativity must contain within it the promise of sustainability. However, in focusing on an abstract sustainable utopia, we are more likely to view the present suffering of certain social groups with detachment. Alana Scully traces this detachment in an essay for Overland, arguing that an imagined future built predominantly from technological intervention dismisses those most exposed to ecological violence in the present, such as the global poor and nonhuman nature. Rather than locating our hope in an abstract future, Scully argues, we might focus on the messy, entangled and more-than-human present, following theorist Donna Haraway’s notion of ‘staying with the trouble.’

Unfortunately, in its vagueness, the call to subvert the dualism between nature and culture, exposing the interconnectedness of the present, is open to interpretation. The creative industries have spawned their own interconnected matrix of more-than-human design symposiums organised by developers who build multi-story car parks, luxury eco-resorts made from 3D-printed sand which purport to ‘integrate into the natural environment’ and ‘sustainable’ shopping malls designed using the motif of a flower.

SPACE10, naturally, has also embedded itself in the more-than-human conversation, arguing in a recent blog post that we need to think ‘beyond sustainability’ and adopt a philosophical approach that sees humans as part of nature. They visualise this through another 3D video, this time of an amorphous sculpture set against an arid landscape. To the score of ambient electronica mixed with nature field recordings, the sculpture, and eventually the landscape, regenerate with moss and flowers. Attempting tangibility, the accompanying article then extols the eco-friendly initiatives of million-dollar flooring manufacturer Interface—which, on top of their commitment to net zero emissions and the circular economy, are moving towards a ‘regenerative’ economic approach. This is exemplified by their Sydney factory, which mimics the natural water treatment behaviour of the area, and has therefore been ‘transformed into a place that restored nature.’ Such a place-centric approach, SPACE10 argues, is synonymous with Indigenous ways of understanding nature.

In gesturing vaguely towards Indigenous knowledges and more-than-human philosophies without critiquing the naturalism and moralism of market logic, brands like SPACE10 contribute to depoliticising the discourse on the unsustainability of capitalism. In crisis-managing the critique of unlimited growth, neoliberal environmental initiatives orient us away from the possibilities of alternative political worlds to capitalism. Instead, using the flattened discourse of sustainability and the utopic imaginary of speculative aesthetics, they promote another iteration of capitalism—this time predicated on the interdisciplinary potential of nature and capital.

While SPACE10 excitedly visualises how to colonise Mars with a lighter carbon footprint—gesturing towards a utopic future in which nature, art, technology and science work in harmony—this could not be further from the aesthetic experience of the workers who sustain this warped vision in reality. In her memoir of working at an Amazon fulfilment centre—owned by space colonisation’s most vocal proponent, Jeff Bezos—Heike Geissler recalls: ‘Everything here is dreary and outdated and banal, and that seems to be the best disguise for a business idea to launch itself violently and expansively into the future.’ For its part, speculative aesthetics presents an even more astute disguise. As billion-dollar brands invite us to share their imaginings for a better future, they seek to obscure the ways in which their wealth is accumulated: not only the neglect and banality of precarious work, but also the slow violence of the ecological emergency proliferating in a market-led approach to sustainability. As Pamela M. Lee reminds us, ‘this is someone else’s utopia’.

Taylor Mitchell

Taylor Mitchell writes essays and fiction. She was named runner up in the Kill Your Darlings 2022 New Critic Award. She is also the arts program manager at the Environmental Film Festival Australia. She lives and works on unceded Wurundjeri Country.

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  1. “Though shrouded in cathartic nostalgia, SPACE10 projects an image of space colonization, and indeed a way of envisioning the future more broadly, which generates a misplaced optimism in the radical possibilities of ‘sustainable’ design without ever questioning the autocracy of neoliberal capitalism.”
    Be that as it may. Space travel is hugely expensive, and probably always will be. It appears that mining operations on the Moon, our nearest body in space, and the costs of bringing whatever is dug up there back to Earth would be so high as to make any mining operation there uneconomic.
    We, the human species, are stuck with what we have got here on Earth, where the Second Law of Thermodynamics reigns supreme, and dictates that the planet will get ever more disordered, unless we put in the work required to keep it tidied up; making it just like a teenager’s bedroom.

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