Since the mercury ticked up past 70 degrees, D.C. has seemed like a whole new world filled with endless possibilities and now-friendly neighbors. Although arriving a bit early, this spring has made clear one thing: we are undeniably defined by our relationship to nature.
Artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko knew this already, though. When she began her talk at last week’s Fresh Talk event at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, she begged the audience to remember, if anything, just one word: “mutualism.” The biological term for mutually beneficial interspecies dependence, mutualism is the driving principle behind Jeremijenko’s practice, which fuses human technology and biological systems.
The artist’s projects range in size and scope, but they all ultimately underscore how humanity can easily devastate the environment—but also how we can just as easily give something back. For instance, her AgBag—sacks made from diaper technology to adjust to changes in moisture filled with soil—can be installed on building façades, draped over parking deck rails, or otherwise integrated into existing manmade structures. Once planted, they can increase the leaf area index of a city to help improve its air quality.
On a smaller, species-specific level, “Moth Cinema” seeks to make light pollution less of a hazard for our winged nighttime friends, while also providing entertainment for humans. The artist shoots light over a garden filled with moth-tested-and-approved plants. The shadows of the moths and other nocturnal insects as they flit around are projected onto screens or blank walls.
The difficulty with activism art like “Moth Cinema” is that, although momentarily comforting and beautifully utopian, it doesn’t always provide answers to the big questions of environmental sustainability. But Jeremijenko isn’t trying to answer the big questions, per se. Instead, she seeks to address, in her words, “the crisis of agency, that sense of ‘what can we do’ that everyone feels” when the topic of global warming comes up.
During the panel discussion, Jean Case, co-founder of The Case Foundation, and Megan Smith, the United States Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, joined Jeremijenko to discuss women’s contributions to innovations in technology. While these accomplished women seemed to have much to say on the matter, the conversation was jumbled and often veered toward self-promotion.
Smith and Case spoke authoritatively on their respective initiatives and investments within the bio-tech fields, in a way that seemed like they might already have all the answers. But Jeremijenko offered, humbly, “Nobody trusts artists. As an artist, you’re only has persuasive as the things you can produce. In that way, artists stand in for the Everyman.”
That might be why we need Jeremijenko’s whimsical, if not always pragmatic, approaches to big questions like global warming—to remind us that we have all a role to play in the quest for change, even if we’re not scientists.
The next Fresh Talk event is May 5 at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW
Photo by Kevin Allen