Resilience Theory, from the Sciences to the Arts

cheyanne turions, Toronto
July 11, 2014

While resilience is a quality that can be ascribed to the toughest amongst us, resilience theory is slightly different, an idea that comes from the sciences to describe a system’s capacity to respond to change while maintaining core functions. Unsurprisingly, the character trait and the systems model share something in common—that ability to withstand forces and emerge recognizable on the other side of things. An elastic band is resilient to the extent that it can assume its original shape after being coiled and pulled taught. A person is resilient in their capacity to love again after heartbreak. And the woods are resilient to the extent that they can recuperate from forest fires.

In the parlance of ecology, a basin is a stable state defined by a unique set of processes and structures. The ability to absorb disturbances, man made or otherwise, describes the system’s thresholds, those limits beyond which a previously stable state collapses and a new order asserts itself. While this kind of paradigm shift may seem exciting from the perspective of personal or intellectual development, in the case of ecology, these regime shifts can have profound impacts on human populations that have developed infrastructures that depend upon reliable inputs and outputs from the environment. This is to be blatantly anthropocentric; these regime shifts affect all living beings alike, bacteria, bugs, birds and babies. When an ecological system is able to “absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks,” it is said to be resilient.[1] The thing about basins is that they can be more or less agreeable in supporting certain kinds of life cycles and life forms, human life included. So, from an ecological perspective, sustainability has come to mean environmental management practices that maintain ecosystems in states agreeable to human needs and desires.

It takes little imagination to understand that our demands are enormous: not only is the quality of life exceptional for many people living today, but the human population continues to increase at a nearly exponential rate. While quality of life and population size have been served by ecological practices designed to return maximum yields (think of the use of fertilizers to increase crop harvest or the drainage of wetlands to repurpose rich soils for agricultural uses), the carrying capacity of our planet can accommodate only so much. And ecological systems are complex beyond our capacity to manage them completely. Thresholds loom. If the basins we know now are to remain feasible, something’s got to give. Either our relationship to the environment has to change, or the environment itself will change, reaching local and global thresholds that will redefine the ecological basins we exist in.

As a scientific study, resilience theory is intimately connected to the idea of sustainability. The goal is to shift extraction and consumption practices in a way that fosters resilient ecosystems so that environmental disturbances can be absorbed and basic human needs met while, in the long-term, continuing to operate within desirable basins. When thresholds are acknowledged, the hope is that action can be taken to avoid regime shifts, thus maintaining quality of life for future generations.

Ecologist C. S. Holling began theorizing resilience in the early 1970s, and since his articulation was first offered, the idea has slowly been percolating from the sciences through to the social sciences, “expanding beyond ecology to reflect systems of thinking in fields such as economics and political science. And, as more and more people move into densely populated cities, using massive amounts of water, energy, and other resources, the need to combine these disciplines to consider the resilience of urban ecosystems and cities is of paramount importance”.[2] The four themes of Cities for People—arts, governance, economy, and the built environment—examine interrelated aspects of civic life, seeking out opportunities to develop resilience for the ecological and cultural well-being of the diverse and intimately situated populations of cities today.

Resilience theory is applicable to the arts to the extent that artists and audience are part of an ecosystem, drawing on its resources, re-writing its shape, eager to define its behaviour. These interactions operate in mutually defining directions.

The practices of artists can be shaped by concerns for resilience, such as when the materials used in the mounting of exhibitions are recycled into the raw materials of object-making. Think of all that wood used to build false walls repurposed as used lumber instead of waste. New York City’s Materials for the Arts is an effective example of this.

The practices of artists can shape the means of living resiliently, such as when ecological concerns or pubic interest motivate creativity. For instance, in 2010 Emily Carr University launched an electric vehicle project that focused on “sustainable regional design” in the development of a prototype that addresses the desire for private transportation and a slightly lighter ecological footprint than traditional gas-powered cars.[3] Operating within the arts, the project had little concern for patents or market return, and instead championed new models of design and collaboration.[4]

Resilience theory can also be used as a way of describing the arts. What defines the basins we are currently in? What thresholds loom? What might a regime change entail? One might consider the current situation of government support for culture in Canada as one basin the arts currently occupies, and the threat of austerity politics as a seemingly inevitable threshold. Regime change could mean many things: an art world more closely tied to market forces, or perhaps an abundance of public-private partnerships, or maybe even an older style of patronage.

In my role as part of Cities for People, I will be thinking through the practices of artists to consider what they can tell us about resilience theory. In tandem, I will consider what resilience theory can tell us about art. My investigations will depart from a core series of projects organized by Musagetes, curators of the Art and Society arm of Cities for People, but I will be listening for resonances elsewhere too, from speaking with others concerned with culture and livability to studying exhibitions.

In constructing a claim that the works of revolutionary artists have foreshadowed major discoveries in science, surgeon and author Leonard Shlain delineates and weaves between art and physics: “The artist employs image and metaphor; the physicist uses number and equation. Art encompasses an imaginative realm of aesthetic qualities; physics exists in a world of crisply circumscribed mathematical relationships between quantifiable properties. Traditionally, art has created illusions meant to elicit emotion; physics has been an exact science that made sense…While their methods differ radically, artists and physicists share the desire to investigate the ways the interlocking pieces of reality fit together.”[5] If I take Shlain seriously, then it is through the careful analysis of the practices of artists that insights into the science of resilience will be gained. Let’s see what happens.


[1] Walker, Brian, C. S. Holling, Stephen R. Carpenter, and Ann Kinzig. “Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social-ecological Systems.” Ecology and Society 9, no. 2. (2004), http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss2/art5/.

[2] Kateman, Brian. “Ecological and Urban Resilience.” state of the planet, (2011), http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2011/10/12/ecological-and-urban-resilience/.

[3] Wadsworth, Rebecca. “Emily Carr University Students Launch Electric Vehicle Project.” Media release, (2008), http://www.ecuad.ca/sites/www.ecuad.ca/files/pages/release1/Electric%20Vehicle%20Launch.pdf.

[4] Vancouver Courier. “Emily Carr students fuse talents for electric car.” Canada.com, (2009), http://www.canada.com/vancouvercourier/news/story.html?id=f33cc6be-44c8-4e57-8bf0-51ff4fe289ac. Here, project lead Bartosz Bos speaks about the desire to have the ideas further developed by others, evincing a concern for collaboration and a lack of concern for patents and other restrictive market measures.

[5] Shlain, Leonard, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light ( New York: Perennial, 2001), pages 15-16.

cheyanne turions

cheyanne turions

cheyanne turions is an independent curator and writer who holds a degree in Philosophy from the University of British Columbia, and is currently pursing a master’s degree in Visual Studies from the University of Toronto. From the farmlands of Treaty 8, she is of settler and Indigenous ancestry. She sits on the Board of Directors for Kunstverein Toronto, the Editorial Advisory Committee for C Magazine and the Advisory Board for the Art Museum at the University of Toronto. She is the director of No Reading After the Internet (Toronto). Photo credit: Yuula Benivolski

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