Understanding sustainability — with our head, hand and heart

A stop sign was given new meaning on the streets of Berlin. Photograph: Judith Tonner

ZHdK art education researchers are investigating and questioning prevailing understandings of and approaches to sustainability — in order to initiate social change. Among other questions, they are asking: How can future culture, art and design mediators shape their audience and its behaviour accordingly?


“In view of today’s major global challenges, it is most important that students deal with sustainability and learn methods that enable them to make this issue fruitful for themselves and others,” explains Judith Tonner, an art education research associate at ZHdK. “As regards art and sustainability, many of us first think of long-haul flights, resource-heavy exhibitions and large-scale events, or of non-recyclable materials and how to avoid them. But the thematic scope is much broader: access to education, cultural participation and justice, climate protection and dealing with public space: everything concerns sustainability,” adds Sophie Vögele, also an art education research associate at ZHdK.

“Us” and “them”

Diversity and sustainable lifestyles are directly linked, according to Sophie Vögele. The externally funded project “Recht auf Wir” (Right to We), for example, addresses this complexity from a post-migrant perspective. Starting in September 2022, the project is a multi-year cooperation of ZHdK with the FHNW University of Teacher Education and Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. Under this umbrella, several projects will be developed with students (and involving public groups) at the interface between socioculture, pedagogy and the arts. Through the multi-perspective and practice-based questioning of the distinction between “us” and “them,” the project seeks to uncover everyday forms of discrimination in the public sphere in order to dissolve them through a debate on social sustainability and changes in practice. The experiences and insights will flow back into teaching as the project progresses. The interdisciplinary projects and the initiated processes will be continuously documented. By December 2025, in addition to projects, outcomes will include an application-oriented and experience-based interactive and methodical workbook for an interested public — especially professional practitioners in artistic, pedagogical and socio-cultural fields of practice.

Enjoy and desire simplicity and renouncing

Another art education research project shows how interdisciplinary research and teaching can interact: “Weniger ist mehr” (Less is more) deals with sufficiency — the economical use of resources. Led by Regula Brassel and Judith Tonner, the project examines how sensual-aesthetic experiences — such as upcycling or using natural dyes — can promote the joy and desire for simplicity and renouncing. In cooperation with lecturers and students, the project develops, tests and evaluates corresponding teaching offerings. Students receive support from various field partners such as research institutes or socio-cultural institutions, who are involved as experts or potential employers. The developed educational and outreach offerings will serve as an empirical basis for further sociological research. The outcome will be a collection of approaches that can be used in educational institutions.

With all our senses

Students and their ideas will influence the world of tomorrow. For Judith Tonner and Sophie Vögele, ZHdK, as a training and research institution for the arts, has a special responsibility to highlight the diversity of sustainability. The two projects highlight that the interface between university-wide disciplines, research and teaching holds great potential. “The arts — and art education in particular — offer opportunities to make information and knowledge tangible and thus lastingly shape human action,” says Judith Tonner. “Aesthetic approaches allow us to grasp the world, to experience it with all our senses, to sharpen our perception and to develop our imagination. Art education can promote sustainability: with our head, hand and heart.”

Eva Vögtli (eva.voegtli@zhdk.ch) is responsible for communications at the Department of Cultural Analysis.
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