by Allie Tsubota
We often categorize climate change as an issue remote in time and space – that is, its impacts are far-reaching temporally and geographically, leaving present-day Americans unable (or less inclined) to grasp its reality. Last week, at an independent, student-curated exhibit titled “Re-imagine Now,” young artists attempted to bridge this gap by bringing climate change to the here and now. The event focused on performance as a medium of the present, in which the audience and performers engaged in a mutual experience of the immediate moment. The evening was organized and hosted by NYU undergraduate Dorothy Lam, and showcased the work of twelve emerging artists across the genres of film, performance, mixed media, and visual arts.
Upon arriving to “The Mess,” an interactive performance space in Bushwick (disclaimer: it was Dorothy’s apartment), I was asked to dump my hands in a bucket of ice water, or to “join hands in solidarity.” The action represented a commitment to climate activism (as opposed to “clicktivism,” its more common and less glorified cousin). After enjoying some homemade freegan food, guests were led through a discussion-based presentation of the exhibit.
A notable piece was Jesse Rosenberg and Blake Sugarman’s 50-second film, Unless. The short depicts a young man (Sugarman) surrounded by technology. Lights, heaters, a computer, a printer, and a microwave hum in constant use, as Sugarman slurps an unidentifiable brown liquid from an oversized jug. His eyes are glued to a screen, and his body operates on automatic. He is both the driver and a cog within this labyrinth of a system. Suddenly, the power cuts and everything goes black. We’re left with the image of Sugarman – his face revealing half-awe and half-fright – enveloped in darkness but for a lit match.
As the single human actor amongst the machines, Sugarman is ironically positioned as the sole holder of agency and a helpless constituent. Though he has the potential to react, make decisions, and take control, he remains only marginally conscious of his surroundings. Such a paradox raises the questions, “How much agency do we have over technology? What is our capacity to guide our relationship with technology?”
Performance artist Sammy Dalati also addressed such questions. Her piece, Bringing Home the Bacon, highlighted the absurdity (and according to one observer, the sexual nature) of our physical relationship with technology. Dalati applied motions we reserve for electronics (e.g., swiping a touchscreen or plugging in earbuds) to more “natural” objects (e.g., food and people). Like in Rosenberg and Sugarman’s film, Dalati’s interaction with technology personified inanimate objects while objectifying – or mechanizing – human actors.
Both works tackled structural and cultural issues with technology, and how such issues manifest in terms of climate and the environment. Rosenberg, Sugarman, and Dalati all suggest we’ve become unthinking components of a technological system, one that reinforces present rates of energy consumption and exacerbates the impacts of climate change. They hint that “re-imagining” society requires actively defying the continued mechanization of humanity. It requires harnessing our ability to innovate, reason, and pursue change in the face of a global threat.
This “re-imagination” may well be an exercise in idealism, and whether or not it will exist beyond our own minds is up for debate. Like much art that eschews activism for fear of narrowing creative scope or alienating viewers, the exhibit as a whole did little to provide tangible guidelines for how we – as consumers and as citizens – can address climate change. Still, the event signifies a growing interest in the nexus of culture and environment within the artistic community. That young, emerging artists are exploring climate change as a creative theme promises nuanced attention to the issue, and merits genuine recognition.
All photos by Allie Tsubota unless noted otherwise.