From Gardens to Galleries: IFAI’s Roots in Sustainability and the Importance of Empowering Artists
WE SAT DOWN WITH IFAI FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR NICOLE LOESER (ALONGSIDE CORE TEAM MEMBERS BARBARA VID, JESS BRAZEN AND CLARA HENNINGS) TO GET HER PERSPECTIVE ON SUSTAINABILITY, THE BEGINNINGS OF THE INSTITUTE FOR ART AND INNOVATION (IFAI), AND HOW ART CAN TRANSFORM OUR WAY OF THINKING.
NICOLE GOT INTO SUSTAINABILITY AT A YOUNG AGE, HER STRONG CONNECTION TO NATURE FOSTERED BY HER GRANDPARENTS. BEFORE IFAI, SHE HAS WORKED AS A CURATOR AND GALLERIST FOR 15 YEARS.
- How did you get started? Where did the idea of the IFAI stem from?
When I worked on projects as a curator, I usually focused on the intersection of the arts and other disciplines because with art you can open doors and provide a neutral and creative space for people to meet and exchange. During the mid-2000s I had a feeling that conversations about solving future challenges were not really present in the art world and I wanted to start bringing art closer to the innovation scene. So, in 2016, I teamed up with the digital innovation strategist Viktoria Trosien and we founded the IFAI.
We both thought that this would be a great opportunity to bridge the creative powers of art and innovation to catalyze positive transformation. We realized that we needed a central principle or theme to bring all these people with different backgrounds and skills together, so we decided on the topic of water pollution for our first project: ‘The Universal Sea’.
Nowadays, IFAI specializes in the facilitation of purpose-driven interventions at the intersections of art, science, and technology.
We initiate interdisciplinary projects not only to empower people and organizations but to tackle the challenges of the 21st century and co-create solutions.
- What are the most important things you’ve learnt from your time here at the IFAI?
At the beginning of the ‘Universal Sea’ project, we were only four partners from three countries. Throughout the last one and half years, we have partnered with seventy institutions, including twenty universities from twelve different countries. More than 6 million people have participated in our festivals, exhibitions, workshops and lectures.
It was amazing to see just how inspired people got, not only by this particular project, but also the entire concept. Last year, we started a follow-up project, ‘The Plastic Revolution’, where we sought also to engage the younger generation. Collaboration between all sectors and the joining of forces by changemakers, experts and forward-leading organizations again proved to be essential to accelerate transformation.
“I think for us it’s really about finding new formats and structures because the old ones don’t suit us anymore.”
Sometimes it seems difficult to get people out of their bubbles. It’s really encouraging to see that we can change the system and aim for collaboration on a broader scale to catalyze change. It’s so inspiring to us, it only makes us aim to have an even bigger impact!
- What got you personally interested in sustainability, grassroots movements, and activism?
“For me, art reminds people that we are part of this planet. Nature is so much more than just the plants, trees and animals—it’s also our entire way of life and it needs to be shared with every species.“
We generally think, as humans, that we’re the most important part of this world, but the seed of life is in every living being. To value all beings the same is what drives me and keeps me focused on my mission. I have always challenged myself to see how I could survive without certain things – just trusting in the kindness of strangers.
So for me, it’s about this trust in life and how to deepen my knowledge of this. For example, I’ve been doing permaculture gardening for the last 10 years, growing my own fruits and vegetables to prove to myself more than anything that I could. I’ve planted about three hundred trees, and I have up to two hundred and fifty types of plants in the garden.
Sustainability is meant to be recognized on many different levels and I believe we should care about how we use our resources and energies. Regarding grassroots movements, I think that having the experience of the Berlin Wall falling in 1989 showed us that when the collective dreams together, great change can be achieved.
We still believe in the power of people in general and if they have the desire to change, then change will come.
- What is art’s role in finding sustainable solutions? Is it more about spreading awareness or is it trying to find different approaches to applying green ideas?
I think we live in challenging times, so everything needs to speed up in order to really tackle climate change.
“Some artists are not aware of how strong their impact is on people. It’s all about empowering them and encouraging them to be part of the conversation.”
Art is not just illustration. It can touch you on many different levels—it’s the best way to gain a different perspective on either an emotional or intellectual level. It has this sense of being connected to the unconsciousness. You can see art as a piece, an object, or an artefact, but seeing that object can also have an impact on how you see reality.
It’s really about drawing your attention to what you do see and what you don’t see. Therefore, art can uncover our unconscious and conscious perception.
Regarding our interdisciplinary collaborations (e.g. future-prototyping workshops based on art and design thinking as well as worldbuilding methods) participants get excited when they discover many different existing green solutions they were not aware of before. On one hand, their visions for the future get more positive and, on the other hand, they can reflect on their own practices and how they could improve. When it comes to the art world, I have the impression that large-scale discussions around sustainability in museums or art schools only started a year ago. I very much appreciate that change has also now started happening in institutions.
We must envision this new green world together and how we can approach this new way of sustainable living. It seems that everyone has their own understanding of what sustainability is. For example, businesses still look mostly at economic sustainability, but we need to bring their focus also to social and ecological sustainability. I think this is urgent and we have to join forces and exchange on best practices to achieve this as soon as we can, to ensure well-being for generations to come.
- How important is it for your message that you approach projects like the Social Art Award by collaborating with people across a spectrum of disciplines such as science and business?
The IFAI focuses on collaboration and co-creation, especially between artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, experts and policymakers, as well as a diverse variety of institutions.
When we first started The Social Art Award, the term was not yet claimed. That’s why the first callout asked if artists could connect to that term. We received an overwhelming number of applications from more than 130 countries and were so excited to see how different their approaches and practices were. Since then we have been aiming to cluster the field and to invigorate the rise of social art.
If we were to differentiate Social Art from Social Design or Social Innovation – I’d say it’s social art when artists reflect or articulate something that people don’t even have words for yet, or connect to a feeling people have that their reality is not going in the right direction–
the social artist can sense this and ask questions in a very mindful and subtle way.
Social design and innovation depart from where the problem is specified, only then you can try to change the reality and find solutions. As soon as you can map and understand the situation it can be transformed in a better way. You can incorporate new methods and/or raise awareness.
“I think artists are so important because they can get us involved on an emotional level which allows us to reflect.”
If people can get involved, if they can see, hear, or smell something, then we can draw their attention towards a specific installation or innovation. Only then can they start questioning: What is this? Why is it here? Why do I connect to this?
To tackle the challenges of the Anthropocene is important for us —we have to work together and understand systemic interdependencies and how artists can help us to address our unconscious biases.
For The Social Art Award, we envision the invigoration of social art on a global level. We shared this idea, this mission, and artists can really relate to that. We didn’t know what would come out of this approach in the beginning, but now we understand that artists connect to other social artists from around the world, strengthening and empowering their communities and themselves.
- When it comes to supporting art projects, do aesthetics always play a prominent part, or is it more about conveying a raw, visceral message?
It is aesthetic revolution that preludes societal revolution. First, we need to have a vision to head towards, to define how the change should feel and look. These types of images for our futures are currently missing because, at the moment, the focus is mainly driven by a technological perspective.
However, if you ask people on a human level, then they cannot connect to this. Our lives are already so dominated by technology nowadays that it’s hard to relate to a world that has even more tech. Another fact is that we share mostly images of dystopias. I often meet young people who are very depressed and demotivated.
It’s imperative that artists enter the stage and not only reflect the present but all these types of ideas and visions regarding our future.
The Social Art Award topic for this year is ‘New Greening’. We are inviting artists to come together and exchange ideas on how to realize the Green New Deal or the European Green New Deal. Social art is open to the public and helps them understand the situation, or brings a positive feeling and engages with them on a level that can affect them. That’s another reason why I believe it’s important to include aesthetics in the conversation.
- What do you look for when searching for partners to work with?
We collaborate on a very broad scale, it’s always about lifting each other up and exchanging knowledge. It’s very important for us to share the same values and see eye to eye. With all of our partners, the importance of collaboration regarding mutual connections and partnerships is at the forefront. We like to use our platform to empower each stakeholder, not only in the areas of business or innovation but also in the cultural arena.
“Our mission is to find new approaches, new structures and forms together. We want to transform our linear society into a circular one, but we need to first arrive at an understanding of how we can achieve this together.”
For this reason, it’s wonderful to partner with Zero Waste Berlin Festival because we share the same mission: inviting people to come together and exchange their ideas, practices, and become more sustainable together.
I think this is necessary for all involved parties, but ZWBF is a good example of the partnerships that we aim for. It’s great to collaborate on this level, and we are very grateful to present our Social Art Award winners at this year’s event.
The festival will be an excellent stage for the Social Art Award because it highlights the role everyone needs to play in building towards greener futures.