Our Agency is Powerful

‘Reducing the carbon footprint and reducing the food miles and reducing the negative effects is important and I think necessary. But it’s not sufficient. It’s radically insufficient.’ Natalie Jeremijenko’s art practice centres on utilising the creative potential of science and of the imagination to find solutions to the problems of environmental degradation. In recent years her work has been increasingly focused on food production. Through her ongoing Cross(x)Species Adventure Club project (which will visit Melbourne for the second time this December), Jeremijenko combines rigorous research, radical politics and rich imagery to propose that the future of sustainable food lies in a complete rethink of how humans relate to the natural environment. She employs highly specialised technologies yet insists on the importance of collective engagement to create what she poetically terms ‘shared public memories of possible futures.’ Hers is a creative practice that engages with artistic and political concerns in a way that renders them both inextricable and irresistible.

Jeremijenko, whose background includes studies in fine art, biochemistry, physics, neuroscience and precision engineering, prefers to call herself an ‘environmental art activist’. A dazzlingly prolific and articulate multi-tasker, Jeremijenko spoke by telephone with Arena Magazine while riding a bike through dense New York City traffic carrying water samples from the Bronx and Mississippi Rivers, balancing two computers in a basket, and toting a bagful of electrical cables—all the while wearing a cowboy hat to keep the sun out of her eyes. She has been known to hold office consultations on a raft constructed out of recycled plastic bottles floating on New York’s East River, yet she is also a past recipient of the prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship: Jeremijenko navigates between eccentricity and the establishment with ease and charm.

She has exhibited at several respected US museums, including the Whitney, but the primary focus of Jeremijenko’s practice is public and participatory. Past projects have included Feral Robotic Dogs (2003), for which the artist rewired off-the-shelf children’s toys, equipping them with complex toxin-detecting and communication software and ‘releasing’ them in a range of contexts including within public art museums. As is typical of what is often called ‘new media’ art, the object (the rewired robots) and the performance (their release in public) are equally integral to the work: that is, the project only becomes fully meaningful with the active involvement of a public audience. That Feral Robotic Dogs was reported in specialist science and art journals as well as in The New York Times is testament to Jeremijenko’s success in harnessing the communicative potential of art to capture public attention to a degree to which an academic experiment would never aspire.

‘There’s a lot of accounting and measuring of the negative effects’, Jeremijenko explains, but she recognises that diagnosing the problem is only the beginning. The Feral Robotic Dogs ‘sniffed out’ toxins, but the edible cocktails and amuse-bouches Jeremijenko is currently working on actually seek to make a positive contribution to the health both of the human consumers and the natural environment. The artist has been holding regular events under the moniker of the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club, intimate public gatherings that combine elements of an art performance, a science lecture and a cocktail party. This December’s instalment in Melbourne will interact with the exhibits collected in the Melbourne Museum as part of a week-long program of participatory events and activities. Jeremijenko believes that ‘the food movement is a huge movement—in the US it’s the biggest social movement by a long way. There are a lot of people interested and engaged’. Her project strives to contribute a positive and playful spirit to this movement, to seek possibilities rather than solely cataloguing problems.

‘The Cross(x)Species Adventure Club is creating a convivial context in which we can think about the extraordinary challenge of redesigning and reimagining food systems’, Jeremijenko says. Her ambition is to ‘design food systems so that they improve environmental health, so they augment biodiversity, so they actually have positive effects. This is a huge design challenge and there aren’t actually people working on that, [asking] “How the hell do we do this so that it radically improves environmental health and biodiversity?”.’ What makes the club ‘cross species’ is that the menu offers positive nutrition both for humans and other creatures: one dinner consists wholly of foods edible—and delicious—to both humans and geese, another employs preparation processes in the kitchen with a corollary process in the estuary ecosystem. Past offerings concocted by Jeremijenko in collaboration with molecular gastronomer Mihir Desai have included Lures: wishing fish well, which contain a chelating agent that binds to bio-accumulated heavy metals when ingested by either humans or fish, allowing these toxins to pass out of the body in a less harmful form. It’s like a ‘fish restaurant where you feed the fish’, the artist explains. The addition of gin, tonic (which fluoresces in UV light) and rosemary make for a tasty and titillating pre-dinner edible cocktail. The Wetkisses: the marshmallow for kissing frogs formerly known as Prince, another edible cocktail, is coloured purple to evoke a soil bacteria found in wetlands known to protect frogs from disastrous fungal infections. Jeremijenko believes this purplish bacteria may help redress the mass extinction of amphibians, which many claim rivals that of dinosaurs in its scale and devastation.

For dessert, participants (or ‘adventurers’) have been offered Nano water buffalo ice-cream. Jeremijenko is an ardent advocate of water buffalo milk as an alternative to cow milk that is more beneficial for humans—being higher in protein and nutrients and lower in fat—and also for the environment, as water buffalo require a smaller land area than cows and their cultivation necessitates the reclaiming of wetlands which in turn are havens of biodiversity, providing vital ecosystems for endangered amphibians and other creatures, and neutralising carbon dioxide.

At the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club, the buffalo milk is treated with liquid nitrogen to boost its creaminess. This kind of molecular gastronomy is hardly applicable for everyday real-world use, but Jeremijenko, with the help of her students completing an assignment she calls ‘How stuff is made and how it can change’, has been lobbying multinational ice-cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s to begin commercial production of buffalo ice-cream. By creating a market for water buffalo products, she hopes to pressure large-scale manufacturers like Ben & Jerry’s to increase the number of wetlands, thus enhancing biodiversity. ‘I would argue that to eat water buffalo milk ice cream because of the known environmental health benefits is much more effective than to not eat dairy ice cream’, Jeremijenko contends. ‘I don’t think that these simplistic categories—vegan, vegetarian, non-dairy—solve any problems. That’s not where our agency is powerful …. is not participating powerful? No. There are plenty of people who will keep eating dairy ice cream.’ Jeremijenko rejects the received notions of what constitutes ethical eating. ‘A moral philosophical position, like the Peter Singer way … reduces our sense of the capacity to redesign and re-imagine and actually use both our creative and analytic capacity to figure out how to make it better. To say “I’m not eating that, I have a safe moral position” is bullshit.’

This attitude is typical of the artist’s emphasis on positive possibilities rather than problems and prohibitions. It is evidenced in the lingering cuteness of the Feral Robotic Dogs that were once children’s toys, in the glowing lights of the Lures: wishing fish well and in the playful naming of the Wetkisses: the marshmallow for kissing frogs formerly known as Prince. It’s a deliberate strategy of play, Jeremijenko explains, as ‘play is enlisting. Humour enlists and is convivial whereas moral certainty need not be’. Accepting that ‘there’s no one genius that’s going to redesign the food system’, she insists that ‘play becomes important if you think it’s important to enlist and engage. If you think that the power of analysis and argument itself is not enough, that the actual participation and public experiments and the willingness of people to suspend disbelief and to change is really what creates a social force’. Cocktail parties and molecular gastronomy foams may sound like an exclusive kind of activism for the elite, but the artist’s ambition is to inspire and engage a broader public. And, if she succeeds in her negotiations with the Ben & Jerry’s corporation, she might just succeed on a grand scale.

The Ben & Jerry’s intervention grew out of a course Jeremijenko teaches at New York University that asks students to investigate how everyday commodities are made. She begins by asking her students ‘if there’s anything they have on them or that they carry every day or that they use that they can give an account of how it’s made and who made it. And of course, there’s nothing. And all these things in their bags, the pens and books and things they can see in the room:’ the students have no idea how any of it is manufactured. ‘This kind of profound ignorance is a condition of the information age. We talk about information excess and information overload … but that veil between production and consumption is radically thickened.’

One way in which Jeremijenko is seeking to lift that veil is through her AgBags, simple pouches to hang from windows or balconies and in which to grow edible plants. In a sense, the AgBags are simply well-designed hanging pots. But the research Jeremijenko is conducting into efficient plant varieties and new food production techniques reveals that ‘the charge of the AgBags is to use urban agriculture as a radically different thing from rural agriculture.’ Jeremijenko firmly believes that cities can be effective sites for food production. The AgBags, while primarily an agitational gesture, have the potential ‘to redesign agriculture —what it is and where it’s done … In a rural context you don’t have any problem with access to land, but you have a lot of problems with access to people. Here in New York City you’ve got no shortage of labour—intelligent participants—but you don’t have any access to soil’.

Perhaps it’s unlikely that cities will become major producers of food but, in proposing this, Jeremijenko is striving to repair ‘our intimate relationship with non-human organisms’, thus making city-dwellers feel a sense of connection with our eco-system. This is central to the artist’s intervention in the environmental movement. ‘Traditional environmental conservation and preservation groups ideologically are polar opposite to what I do’, Jeremijenko insists, as they are ‘not about actively constructing and reimagining and redesigning … I think this is the representational challenge of the time. We have this legacy of believing that anything we do, any kind of human, urban effect on natural systems is bad, so it’s better just to leave them alone, stay away as far as possible’.

Unlike many in the environmental movement, Jeremijenko accepts that an ever-increasing number of humans are living in urban centres. Instead of seeing cities as inherently bad, she seeks out their potential as hubs of environmental renewal. She hopes to ‘invert our cultural preconception that nature is out there and the city is not where nature is. Our cities are natural systems’. She cites a number of studies (as well as her own 1998 project, OneTrees, for which she planted a thousand cloned walnut trees in San Francisco) that suggest trees actually grow faster in urban environments. ‘Paradoxically, in the city, because there’s more pollutants, it actually catalyses the breakdown of ozones much more quickly than in the rural areas where it just lies like a blanket over the trees’, Jeremijenko explains. She imagines a future in which cities host healthy populations of fish, and in which tall buildings house hundreds of different edible plants.

Jeremijenko’s practice, in its emphasis on participation and in its celebration of the enlisting power of play, challenges the conservative elements in the environmental movement and points to opportunities for the food movement to transcend individual lifestyle choices, and to engage urban populations in collective projects of resistance and renewal. ‘Our agency is powerful’, she insists. Swept up in the excitement and sense of possibility offered by her Cross(x)Species Adventure Club, it’s hard not to agree.

*Natalie Jeremijenko, together with Mihir Desai, will be in Melbourne from 25 November to 4 December 2011 for a string of Cross(x)Species Adventure Club events produced by Carbon Arts , an organisation working to facilitate artists’ role in generating awareness and action on climate change. The week will feature a progressive edible cocktail party through the Melbourne Museum on 1 December, with plans for a supper club, an AgBag workshop and a forum on future foods. The Arena Project Space will be the base for of the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club during this period.

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