A catalyst criticizing the world


Our ways of looking are born, alternate, and change culturally. When we think about what kinds of visual meanings are built and what kinds of “recipes” are required for a critical presentation of sustainable change, the answer is culturally ambiguous.

However, based on the suggestions from the artists, it is possible to outline four at least somewhat regular sets of meanings, which we could call visual catalysts. These catalysts entwine into multi-voiced clusters of visual meanings, where it is not possible to separate individual or universal gimmicks. It is only when we interpret the meaning of the catalysts in the dialogical interaction between the piece of art and the observer that we can direct the sustainability angle and the catalyst becomes visible.

According to the Finnish Member of the European Parliament, Sirpa Pietikäinen, the transformation towards a new, more sustainable and non-linear society requires insights and critical thinking. Art is an excellent tool for catalyzing change, as it can be used to “trick” people out of previous ways of thinking.

First, texts and images create a new holistic way of looking at things. The images and the accompanying texts seduce the observers into a game of interpretations, and trick them into noticing something they have not thought of before. Instead of depicting food just as a recognizable and sort of an edible object, the artist breaks the stereotypical ways of enjoyment and presentation. As an example, Robert Dash and the set Food for Thought. The surrealistic representations of some kind of future food challenge us, and force us to sample and change our visions.

Tricking is the most important visual catalyst, as it feeds our imagination. We need imagination in order to increase sustainability thinking and for getting out of the current cul-de-sac. Tricking is a resource for our survival: when we encounter something unexpected, we realize our own ignorance. Aiming for surprises is the key, as they in turn reveal our previous ignorance. The dialogue between surprise and ignorance catalyzes the understanding of the problem: we need to find out what the surprise means (Gross 2020, 1.)

Another set of meanings is built from the images, which expand our concept of being social. Perceiving animal and vegetable kingdoms, and even abstract phenomena, from a human viewpoint creates a new kind of relationship with the environment. The idea of sustainable development reaches over generations, and requires a caring approach to the environment and realizing the intrinsic value of nature. The work You and I by Huaijun Wen connects indoor plants with humanity. In the future, we need to create ethically sustainable relationships with the non-human world – not just by identification but also through recognition. When creating a relationship based on respect, both the difference and similarity of the non-human are important when compared to humans (Kortetmäki 2017.)

The third catalogue of visual catalysts resembles rebellious research, striving to improve social and ecological conditions (Suoranta & Ryynänen 2014.) The catalyst resembles activism and is constructed of the works where the artists put themselves on the line. When the artist places the objective truth and their personal input side by side by becoming a part of the work, art gets critical emphasis. Subjective and individual viewpoints address the observer, because it is typical for us to experience the world personally and individually. Individuality is a catalyst of change, which has universal reach. The trash performance by Kati Rapia and Ilona Valkonen creates art from trash and an empowering catalyst of change from art.

The fourth catalyst is the critical set of meanings created from materialistic consuming. Based on the works, art emphasizes the birth of consumer-critical view through, for example, paradox and irony. As an example, We Fuck Ourselves by David Puig Serinyà, which strips objects from their intended purpose and makes consuming a laughing stock.

A catalyst criticizing the world of goods is important, but if repeated, it can lose its power. The same has happened with pornography and violence. In other words, a consumer-critical catalyst needs to be combined with some other catalyst, in order to create an impact, which catalyzes sustainability. The change is unlearning something in order to see new possibilities (Nygren, Jokinen & Nikula 2017.)

Learning new does not happen in a vacuum. A catalyst criticizing the world of goods always carries a risk, as it is in the nature of art photography to conceal more than they reveal. Visual catalysts, which are based on art and affective influencing, can also be used as inhibitors of sustainable development. Creative solutions for solving the sustainability issues often end up targets for predators and profit seeking, to increase production in the capitalistic market economy. If the visual gimmicks are used just for the sake of seduction and contrary to the sustainability thinking, greenwashing is the result. We should not abandon hope, but we do need to be aware of the risk of greenwashing.

Juha Suonpää