Art-Eco Project Report

This post is based on the transcription of Raisa’s presentation at Art, EcoJustice, and Education Conference on December 11, 2017 at the University of Tampere. (Power Point presentation as PDF)


Art-Eco is funded by Kone Foundation for three years, from 2015 to the end of this year.

Only two researchers were working with the grant money, doctoral student Jussi Mäkelä and myself as a post-doctoral scholar.

Before going to the actual contents, I will give you some figures of our project: Our budget was about 250 000 euros, from which 200 000 euros was covered by Kone Foundation, and the rest by smaller personal grants and funding.

We have organized five academic events and two art festival during these years. Just Jussi and I have had together:

  • about 20 artworks and exhibitions.
  • 8 peer-reviewed articles. Plus 2 other articles.
  • 3 books.
  • and 20 conference presentations.

We have also been lecturing, reviewing, consulting, mentoring… (The list of outcomes as PDF.)

But for what? And why?

Environmental disasters, animal abuse, wars, racist and sexist crimes — these are daily news from the traditional and social media of, in what state humankind has driven itself and its planet. We live in an era of eco-social crisis.

In this presentation, I show how through arts-based practice we can challenge, what I call ”normalized pathologies” of our modern society and furthermore imagine ”what else could be”.

I will first outline the multidisciplinary theoretical framework of our research project.

In our project, we have also used different methods of arts-based research which give access to various, normally marginalized, experiences and voices beyond modern assumptions and stereotypes.

On this basis, I conclude that empathetic-ecological humanity means responsible humans who understand their interdependence with the more-than-human world and who celebrate the diversity of people, other animals, and ecosystems. 

At the end, I want to emphasize the importance of multidisciplinary and multi-sensory practices in rethinking education towards sustainable future.


The starting point for the whole research project was when we met our mentor Rebecca Martusewicz and when she introduced the framework of EcoJustice Education to us in 2014.

The principal aim of EcoJustice thinking is to understand and protect the essential interdependence among humans and with the more than human world. It is crucial to acknowledge the fact that we are mutually responsible to and dependent on others. Any assumption that we are superior to or outside this interdependence will cause damage.

EcoJustice practice works along three interrelated strands of analysis: 

  1. The first involves an understanding that the present problems of ecological and social violence are rooted in our taken-for-granted value-hierarchized worldview, including science-based rationalism, instrumentalism, and individualism. These have to be challenged to change the course of action by regarding all life as equally valuable.
  2. The second strand focuses on identifying those patterns of belief and behavior that lead to mutual care and the protection of more sustainable ways of life. This process is named as ”revitalizing the commons”. 
  3. The third strand argues for imagination as an essential means of engaging the forms of responsibility needed to generate healthy communities. So, we must imagine that it is possible to live ethically on this earth and what that could look like.

EcoJustice thinking borrows from eco-feminism (Male & Shiva 2014, Plumwood 1993, 2002), which combines feminist and ecological themes. Its key research topics include a critical interpretation of the culture-nature dualism caused by the patriarchal world-view.

According to ecofeminism, the exploitation of both women and our ecologies is due to hyper-separation between culture and nature: for example, men and rationality are always seen as superior, and in contrast women and emotionality inferior (Plumwood 1993, 2002).

In addition to ecofeminism, our artistic work and thinking are also influenced by eco-phenomenology (Abram 1988, 1996, 2010; Brown & Toadvine 2002, see also Merleau-Ponty 2008/1945, 1968, 2003).

Eco-phenomenology examines how the tradition of a continental philosophy can inform the questions of environmental ethics  (Brown & Toadvine 2002, see also Värri 2014). Eco-phenomenology emphasizes the importance of experience in our attempt to research the world, but it also aims to challenge the anthropocentric conception of experience (Brown & Toadvine 2002).

The significance of experience can be described for example, by using the concept of asubjectivity, that is, a quality between different realities that cannot be fully restored to a subject or an object (Vadén & Torvinen 2015). For example, the meaning of forest walk does not only arise from the psychological contents of my mind, nor on the objective features of the natural environment but instead on the direct encounter between the forest and me.

In our task of trying to formulate what empathetic-ecological humanity could be about, several concepts and their definitions have been influential to us. 

In the modern Western society, we think of a body as only biological, anatomical and physiological entity, something that functions without the conscious efforts of a person. In contrast, the phenomenological concept of lived body refers to the experiential extension, where the body is conscious of itself and which we also call the “self.” So, the lived body is the unity of body–mind–spirit. In other words, it is bodily, cognitively and spiritually present in and of the world.

David Abram coined the term ”more-than-human world,” because he was frustrated with the terminology of environmentalism which contrasts humankind and the rest of nature by using the word “nature” as something totally separate from ”culture.”So, this phrase reminds us of the fact that human culture is only a subset of a larger set — that the human world is necessarily interrelated with the more-than-human world.

In my dissertation, I formulated the pedagogy of recognition (Foster, 2012) borrowing from Paul Ricoeur’s (2005) lexical and philosophical analysis of recognition. In my pedagogy of recognition, I first claim that we shift our action from (conceptual) knowing to (perceptual) recognizing. Second, I suggest that education should move from supporting (egoistic) self-esteem to (critical and inter-relational) self-recognition. Third, I claim that education should move from the model of possessive relation to others towards the mutual recognition of all life forms.

Jussi Mäkelä is using the concept of social sculpture which he has borrowed from German sculptor, teacher, and political activist Joseph Beuys. Throughout his whole artistic career, Beuys concentrated on developing a new kind of understanding of art that would lead to “a social organism as a work of art” (1990, p. 21).Beuys seems to refer to the social organism as something that we have power, freedom, and responsibility to shape. Society is our work of art which we have made and which therefore also represents our sense of aesthetics, the things we value.

Elisa Aalto and Sami Keto have recently released an insightful book about empathy. They describe the position of empathy in the contemporary world by using theories of psychology, philosophy, and biology. They ask, how is empathy associated with moral, cultural and political issues? And how does it affect our ability to share this planet with other beings? Especially Elisa’s conceptualization of embodied empathy and reflective empathy resonate well with our understanding of empathetic-ecological humanity.


The problem of academic research is that it often reaches only the members of our own scientific community and at most a few professionals working in the field.

In our project, we have used several different arts-based research methods.One of the main features of arts-based research is its ability to engage with a broader audience than what traditional academic research has been able to (Leavy 2015). Especially in the fields of social and educational sciences arts-based research has become increasingly popular and it has proven to be a reliable method of especially in researching experiences as well as bringing out the voice of people living in the margins (Leavy 2015, see also Suoranta & Ryynänen 2014).

Without going into the details of our methods, I will just say that we have done 

  • installations, exhibitions, festivals
  • movement-based practice and performances
  • videos and films
  • sculptures
  • poetry


By combining artistic practice and theory what have we found out?

First of all, through our work, the normalized pathologies were reaffirmed as key issues in the human and more than human disconnect – hierarchized dualisms, rationalism, individualism, instrumentalism, centric thinking, etc.

But more importantly, our research project found three critical practices in an attempt to overcome these normalized pathologies:

  • first, we should cultivate multi-sensory experiences,
  • second, seek balance,
  • and third, recognize diversity.

During this research project, I have guided sensory walks to different groups of people. By being in silence and closing our eyes, we can better focus on other sensibilities than just rational. We have made various movement and body-awareness exercises, we have focused in particular on the presence of breathing and to our tactile sense. It is our sensory body that binds us to the world, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2008) has said. So, based on our research we claim that through multi-sensory bodily practice, we can truly find and understand our vital connection with the more-than-human world.

By borrowing Beuys’ theory of sculpture Jussi suggests that the most important task for responsible humans is to find a creative balance between chaos and order. We are making a mistake of considering chaos as a threat (something to be defeated or controlled) when in contrast chaos could be seen as the pure unfettered energy that makes life possible. The current state of our world  is a result of not trying to find or maintain a balance: in the light of Beuys’ theory of sculpture Jussi argues that we have instrumentalized (or ignored) the pole of organic chaos, and forced pretty much everything into a determined form – often with measured (monetary) value. With artistic practice, we can celebrate also the creative force of chaos. 

In the world of instrumental values, it is radically political, to let the other to be another. Challenging dualism does not have to mean sinking into sameness; it only intends to remove the hierarchy (Plumwood 1993, 2002). After all, we need diversity for life to be possible. And the recognition of diversity is also vital for healthy ecologies of humans. Artistic activity where we don’t worry about what the participants don’t know or are not capable of doing, but on the contrary, where the practice starts from the recognition and celebration of what the participants are capable of doing and who they basically are in their difference (Xxx 2012b; 2014b) is empowering for the participants, but it is also a powerful political gesture. For example, contemporary dance, which starts from disabled dancers’ own expressions, is not “worse” than abled-bodied dancers’ movements but it is only different. Authentic and honest communication of movements overcome the normal-different hierarchy. Then the objectifying diagnosis of a person with disabilities loses its meaning and the other appears as an equally valuable subject. 

Art practice does not offer ready-made solutions or quick-fixes to problems, but it plays with different possibilities and endorse imagination. I hear from the participants of my multi-sensory movement workshops one sentence more often than any other comment: “I did not know that this kind of world existed”. As an artist with an intention to engage the public with critical imagination, this is the best response that I could wish.

Dualisms are illusions.

Art-Eco project has worked in-between of these oppositional poles, especially in-between of

  • theory and practice,
  • mind and body,
  • self and other,
  • human and other than human
  • masculine and feminine
  • abled and disabled.

For example, in the practice of body awareness and movement improvisation we can see how the body and mind are not separated, movements can generate different sensations, emotions, and memories in our bodies. Movements can also take the mover to the experience of I-lessness – to the disappearance of the ego. I coined the term I-lessness already in my dissertation in order to describe the state where the ego does not exist, but the experience is very much alive and the self is intertwined with others and the world. The self merges into the world and the world merges into the self. However, this feeling of merging does not mean falling into sameness. In short, I-lessness is experienced as the disappearance of the rationally controlled and constructed I, but not the disappearance of the self. The state of I-lessness can only be understood when we abandon the dichotomies of mind—body, self—other, reason—nature, and search for mutuality, in relation with others and in the living space of in-between dualism. ”I-lessness is a rejection of extreme subjectivism, which highlights the individual and independent self over others. On the other hand, the term refers to the overly accentuated position of objectifying and judging eye or I that is in control of everything” (Foster, 2012, p. 212).

Dancing is an activity which is typically excluded from men, because dance as a bodily practice, is considered something feminine. The hierarchized dichotomies are also dangerously grouped together. So, the man is using his rational mind, and not his sensual body. He is not a spiritual but a rational being. These qualities make him a ”real” man. In the bodies of dancing men, we can hit right in-between masculine and feminine dualism. 

Working with people with disabilities showed that art can offer a tool for everyone to express themselves and also to recognize their own abilities. Through art, we can also present the experiences of people with disabilities and open discussion about restructuring our society in a way that the diversity would be better and more positively recognized.

Art-based research can help us to see in-between dualisms and to imagine beyond the limits of the objective and rational realm.

So, coming down from our findings we claim that

Empathetic-ecological humanity means humans as responsible and reflective bodily beings, who understand their interdependence among others, other animals and eco-systems and who recognize the diversity of all life-forms.


In Art-Eco project we have looked at the features of modern Western society and how they have caused the emergence of eco-social problems. Rationalism, mechanism, and individualism as well as the belief in continuous economic growth, are currently ruling the political decision-making in Finland.

On the basis of our research, we claim that the current education policy that is only devoted to technology and natural sciences can lead to severe social and ecological problems. Accordingly, we are afraid that the abolition of arts, social sciences, and humanities from curricula leads students to a distorted view of the world. 

The normalized pathologies of modern thinking have penetrated all the levels of contemporary practice, even in the green politics: For example, bio-economics is marketed for us as clean technology, which, of course, reduces the use of fossil fuels, but which is still referred to as a bio ”resource”, meaning that trees are only seen as instruments for us to use and in the benefit of economic growth.

The so-called instrumental approach also leads us to see students as “learning machines,” which we have to program with right kind of information.

In our project, we also believe that it is problematic that this right kind of information is only considered to come from natural sciences and the use of technology.

Of course, we need technology and science too, and we have been able to get a lot of information for example about the severity of climate change.

However, despite all the information we have, we do not seem to change our behavior.

If the principal objective of the research project was, in fact, to find how to educate towards socially and ecologically sustainable future. Our research has shown that integrating arts-based practices consciously to knowledge-based learning situations is one way to do so.

Our American collaborator Nick Morris has told us how he used to do environmental education by guiding nature tours, naming the different species and revealing facts about ecosystems to his students. However, he has noticed that that has not helped his students to find a true connection with the natural environment.

Collaboration with Jussi and me allowed Nick to realize that getting to know the environment in a way artists do can make people appreciate nature in a new way. By throwing yourself on the ground, listening to the birds singing your eyes closed and feeling the sun on your skin — so doing things that are totally useless and irrational —make you notice the intrinsic value of plants and animals. So perhaps we, adults, should just return to that what children seem to do naturally.

The reason, which opposes itself to the body and nature, is fixed to the dominant position. All rational activities are seen as more valuable than those involving the body.  However, the practice that highlights the importance of the body, our sensory experiences and emotions “does not imply abandoning all forms of reason, science and individuality”, as Val Plumwood says, and continues, ”Rather, it involves their redefinition or reconstruction in less oppositional and hierarchical ways” (Plumwood, 1993, p. 4). Or as Jussi has discovered, our responsibility as artists and educators, or as any human being, is to find a balance between chaos and order, emotion and reason, action, and reflection.

In our project, we have also come to know that the will to protect animals and nature comes from the experience of authentic contact between humans and the more-than-human world — and not just by knowing the facts. Similarly, in order to give recognition for example to people with disabilities, we have to understand them as much more than just their diagnosis.


Internationally, Finns are often praised because of our connection to nature and, also of the broad general knowledge that our schooling provides. However, our American partners have now been terrified of the current education policy in Finland, for example, about the planned high school reform with ranking tools. Our American friends cannot understand why we would want to repeat their mistakes.

Our project’s bold approach to combine art and science in an environmental research project based on social and educational sciences has attracted interest particularly in the United States, where in fact our research results have already been applied to the Environmental Engagement in Ohio.

What we have done during these last three years could be called Arts-based EcoJustice Education. Our arts-based EcoJustice practice does not only aim to reveal the problems of modern thinking but it helps, to imagine, to see and feel, in and through art, what else could be. We believe that with a phenomenological attitude and a critical approach we could all educate and create art that ”changes the world”.

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Raisa Foster
Raisa Foster

Dr. Raisa Foster (b. 1976) is an independent researcher/artist/educator. She completed her PhD in 2012 at the University of Tampere, Finland. She graduated as a dance animateur from School of Dance, Victorian College of the Arts (University of Melbourne) in 2006, and as a Master of Arts (visual culture) from Aalto University in 2015. Foster is experienced in directing and producing multi-discipline performances. Foster is mostly known from her artistic works with young men, Katiska (2008), Ketjureaktio (2012) and Rikka (2014). She has created her own artistic/pedagogical method Tanssi-innostaminen®, a pedagogical method The Pedagogy of Recognition as well as an arts-based research method eragraphy. Foster is currently interested in combining different artistic and more traditional qualitative research methods in her practice as an artist/researcher/educator and establishing her unique approach to performance art.

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Raisa Foster