ENERGY: A (Philosophy of) Practice

Lead Research Organisation: University of Dundee
Department Name: Contemporary Art Practice


Today, 'energy' is associated with our vital dependence on the combustion of fossil fuels, needed for heating, transportation, and food production. All are threatened by anthropogenic climate change. Although there is no shortage of 'green' energy innovations, many cause more problems than they solve, as the example of wind farms in Oaxaca, which caused aridification while reinstating colonial relationships, shows (Dunlap 2018). One reason for this is the sheer volume of energy extraction. The other is the conceptual framework that underpins this activity: this is the source-conversion-end-use concept of energy.

Despite the fact that an unbroken line of inquiry can be traced from Aristotle to Einstein, taking in, for instance, Aristotle's energeia - the ability to set things in motion - and entelecheia - the power of a completed action - the passage from pondering the functioning of levers to the discovery of mass-energy equivalence in the 20th century, wedded energy irrevocably to technology. Potentiality, which is energy's main 'aggregate state' so to speak, was here reduced to end-use. This gave rise to a 'standing-reserve' view of energy where the actual is equated with the usable: a forest is a wood-producing resource, a river a hydropower supplier (Heidegger 1977). If this notion seems dated, a quick glance at the 'gig economy' shows gig labourers to be a standing-reserve on permanent call (Srnicek 2017), just like synthetic biology shows living entities to be a standing-reserve of function (Schyfter 2021).

Relying on new-materialist and posthumanist philosophy, the post-disciplinary configuration of Energy Humanities has, in recent years, developed a critical understanding of energopolitics (Szeman & Boyer 2017). However, Energy Humanities has focused mostly on the ethics of energy consumption, which, though very useful, doesn't solve the problem of the crisis of the concept of energy. This project seeks to fill this gap.

The main aim is to radically change the way we think about energy through a focus on: a) energy as a flux-potentiality continuum, with complex spatial, temporal, environmental and cross-species relationships; b) reticular (rather than linear) causality, which acknowledges constant micro-level change in natural but also machinic and algorithmic environments; c) a study of culturally minoritised, e.g. Indigenous; Asian, and artistic - usually considered as 'not really serious' - energy practices that defy the simplistic and environmentally disastrous extraction-use paradigm; d) a non-dualistic analytical approach where content (the source of energy) is not separate from method (its technology of transformation).

ENERGY: A (Philosophy of) Practice is conceptually and organisationally divided into three subprojects. Each of the subprojects focuses on practices that thematise energy - art, rites, and Indigenous (North-American/Asian) 'coming to know' practices (durational-expriential practices that combine observation with participation) in order to shed light on a different cluster of energy:

1. RESONANCE interrogates physical, spatial, temporal, plant, and animal energies
2. AURA (or radiation) explores cultural-virtual energies
3. ASSEMBLAGE (or kinetics) investigates energies arising from arrangements and contraptions

The project uses a cross-disciplinary methodology - philosophical and cultural analysis, case studies, artography (performative, visual and auto-ethnographic techniques), and 3D visualisation in order to: a) map the dynamics of acknowledged and subtle energy transformations; b) generate new insights into non-manifest energy channels; c) re-appraise the value of artistic and marginalised cultural energy practices, and their relationship to mainstream energy practices; and d) produce both theoretical and practical, actionable knowledge of building, making, arranging, transforming, propelling and remediating.


10 25 50