"Art can help us reconnect with ourselves, with the environment, with otherness"

 Maria Heras

Maria Heras

Lorena Farràs Pérez
Maria Heras, postdoctoral researcher from the TURBA group, at the UOC's Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) research centre


You might think that art and environmental awareness have little in common. Nothing could be further from the truth, as demonstrated by Maria Heras, PhD in environmental sciences and expert in applying artistic methodologies for environmental awareness. Coinciding with World Environment Day, which focuses this year on ecosystem restoration, she explains the role that art can play in ecosystem protection. The problem could not be more topical bearing in mind that COVID-19 is simply the result of man meddling with nature.

Why is it important for us to restore the life of damaged ecosystems?

Ecosystems are the basis of life on Earth. Without them, there is no clean air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, energy to move us, heat us, etc. Ecosystems are the basis of natural cycles, which are invisible for us, but essential for life (such as the nitrogen or carbon cycle). Therefore, rather than restoring life, we have to stop destroying them. Or, in other words, stop altering their basic processes and functions as we are doing now.

What can we do as individuals?

An initial step is to become aware of the relationship between the economic system and environmental destruction and to demand the corresponding responsibilities. Civic organization and collective action are therefore essential (to be able to get together with other people and groups, to report problems, point out responsibilities, defend alternatives, etc.). In our daily life, we also have some leeway with our individual lifestyles. In how we eat, dress, travel, consume... we can defend fairer relations and a more responsible use of resources.

How can we make sure young people get these messages?

Young people are more aware than us. They are well aware that they are the generation that will suffer first hand the generalization of socio-environmental impacts (which have been occurring for years, but which normally affect the more vulnerable and invisible populations, such as those in the south of the planet). I think that, on the one hand, we need to listen more to this generation which is well-prepared and has a greater sense of urgency than previous generations. On the other hand, we need to build bridges between groups with years of experience, impact and environmental struggle, and these new movements which are emerging, in order to ensure that we continue to build on a solid base.

What role can art play in environmental awareness?

Art is a catalyst of experiences, a way of approaching the world which allows us to slow down and develop our perception, using all our senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight...). Art is built on qualities such as real experience, imagination, the sensations of the body and emotion, which enable us to integrate more than just rational stimuli and experience complexity without reducing it. This is essential in a multidimensional crisis like the current one (ecological, social, cultural). Art can help us to reconnect (with ourselves, with the environment, with otherness), to ask ourselves different questions, change our outlook, rethink how we live and act in the world, and relate to each other.

What examples can we find of the application of artistic methodologies in environmental awareness?

There are very inspiring examples, at both an educational and an activist level. At an activist level, we see awareness campaigns which use street performance and visual arts in a very unconventional manner, not just to attract attention, but also to create new metaphors and vocabularies which better represent the current crisis and possible avenues of change. The campaign Stay Grounded is a good example of this. Other examples are movements such as The Artivist Network or the art groups of Extinction Rebellion.

On what research and what projects is the UOC currently working?

The IN3-UOC's TURBA group is working on a co-creation and civic participation line with projects of dialogue between different fields of knowledge and disciplines, such as the dialogue between art and science (at an educational and activist level), citizen science and participatory action research (in this case, research with communities and groups affected by socio-environmental problems). One example is the 'Terra, Teca, Traca' project, consisting of dialogue between artists, researchers and rural environment agents to reflect on food sovereignty and the role of food in the current crisis through art.

What are the artist residencies in rural areas of the 'Terra, Teca, Traca' project? What is their ultimate objective?

The 'Terra, Teca, Traca' project proposes seven artist residencies in different rural areas of Catalonia in which people from the spheres of farming, livestock and fishing interact with artists and scientists, working together to produce a travelling exhibition and a series of debates to reflect with the citizens on the present and future of the rural world and agri-food systems in the face of global environmental changes. Their ultimate objective is to give rise to a ground-breaking dialogue with the citizens through art, allowing the creation of new more radical forms of sensitization and awareness-raising concerning sustainable food production and its importance on confronting the current crisis and global environmental challenges.

Why would Catalonia need to have food sovereignty?

Food forms part of our culture, our health, our relationship with the earth, our contact with life cycles. The dominant agri-food system is currently an industrialized system, highly intensive in resources (energy, raw materials, water, etc.) and globalized. This implies very severe economic, social and ecological impacts, creating territorial and ecological imbalances, external dependencies and an accelerated destruction of ecosystems. It is also a very vulnerable system, since it depends to a large extent on imports, on the foreign market, on large corporations and on overexploited labour. Defending fairer, local food that respects the ecological cycles and food sovereignty is therefore a question of survival and a fundamental issue in the transition towards more sustainable societies.

What does sustainable food mean and how is it related to ecosystem protection?

More sustainable food is more environmentally-aware food, rooted in the territory and the seasons, following the rhythms of nature, with short chains and direct sale, with diverse marketing channels and fairer relations between producer and consumer. This food is not seen as a business, but rather as a way of relating to the earth, to ecosystems (many of which have been created starting from food production), to our history and to other living beings. A focus on food culture and care to meet the fundamental need of eating in a fairer and more conscious manner.



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