Bringing a pen and notebook to a chat with artist-engineer-environmental activist Natalie Jeremijenko is like taking a straw to sip from a fire hose.
Jeremijenko, whose exhibit will run at Helen Day Art Center until April, is overflowing with whimsical ideas for interactive art projects that encourage people to look at their impact on the environment — and the environment’s impact on them.
Among those ideas: a swing that looks like an albatross’ wing, meant to encourage people to think about alternative modes of transportation; a cotton candy machine that makes saccharine floss out of bee pollen; and a collection of perfumes meant to represent the scents of Stowe.
All can be seen, swung on and eaten at the art center.
Jeremijenko, an Australia native and associate professor at New York University, firmly believes in what she calls “mutualism”: “This relationship organisms are in where they mutually benefit each other.” Mutualism is at the heart of Jeremijenko’s exhibit at Helen Day.
Jeremijenko’s exhibit, which she’s still working on but is open to the public, embodies the work she does in New York at the Environmental Health Clinic, which she founded and directs.
It works like a walk-in medical clinic, but instead of coming in with aches, pains, cuts and scrapes, patients — who Jeremijenko calls “impatients” because they refuse to accept the legislature’s solutions to environmental problems — come in wanting an Rx for environmental change.
The idea behind the Environmental Health Clinic is Jeremijenko’s belief that the environment around us is the biggest factor in our health. It’s simple: Create a better environment; live a better, more healthful life.
Jeremijenko gives her impatients a battery of outside-the-box ideas they can use at home, including sharing their lives with more plants, which was Jeremijenko’s own focus last Friday as she worked to set up a collection of highly refractive crystal chandeliers that bear ferns and various flowers common in Vermont near their full-spectrum bulbs.
Sharing our homes with plants is the embodiment of mutualism, Jeremijenko says, and green leaves and buds take center stage in her exhibit.
To walk through the rooms of the Helen Day Art Center is to be treated to a wall of houseplants growing in a specially crafted Tyvek wall hanging pioneered and sold by Jeremijenko under the name “Ag Bags,” just one way people can get more green into their daily lives.
The chandelier room was created as a reminder that plants can and should be appreciated on their own merits, not just as food or as decoration.
“Taking care is really something that’s feminized and devalued and low-paid,” Jeremijenko said, but she sees caretaking as essential to a mutualistic society, and she sees a mutualistic society as the best way to move forward and have real impact on the environment.
“The larger theme” of the exhibit “is to move forward from care to mutualism,” Jeremijenko said. “That takes observation and wonder, all of my favorite words.
“The domestic partnership with a plant is what we’re staging here,” Jeremijenko said. “It’s an obligate relationship. They breathe in what we breathe out. How do we concretize that and explore it?”
For Jeremijenko, that means planting houseplants in chandeliers. For the rest of us, it could mean buying an Ag Bag kit, or simply lining our windowsills with plants. It’s important that we don’t choose only plants we can eat, such as herbs, but that we also keep some we just plain like living with.
“They’re not just decoration,” Jeremijenko said. “My domestic partnerships with a plant are more rewarding than with a man.”
Jeremijenko’s exhibit will also include an installation at Spruce Peak at Stowe, but she’s still trying to work out with Spruce Peak staff exactly what that will entail.
A crisis of agency
Jeremijenko hopes her work, including installations in Toronto, Canada, Boulder, Colo., and New York City, will help snap people out of what she describes as a “crisis of agency.”
“It’s the idea that we are the dominant force. Is that so we can whip ourselves” for the environment’s ills, Jeremijenko asked? “We are responsible for what we can do now. Lately, I’ve been thinking about response-ability: the ability to respond. All of the science doesn’t explore our human agency to respond.”
Jeremijenko’s huge on agency, but she says all the usual things that come to mind when we talk about environmental agency — such as recycling and driving a Prius — are about minimizing our negative impact.
“We need to get beyond doing less damage,” Jeremijenko said. “How do we create an environment where we can thrive? Don’t complain about what the bad guys are doing. Figure out what you can do.
“We can do more than less damage,” she said. “How do we make it more delightful?”
The idea of minimizing negative impact can actually be harmful to young people who care about the environment, Jeremijenko said, because they often can’t afford to buy a Tesla or to do much beyond recycling and composting.
“Does that mean they don’t have agency?” Jeremijenko asked. “They have imaginative agency. It’s about how we use it.”
Jeremijenko thinks Vermont, and in particular community organizations such as the Helen Day Art Center, help bring together groups of people who can work together to use their imaginations.
“The brain trust in this town must be enormous,” Jeremijenko said. “Helen Day Art Center represents collective sense-making. … Collectively, in Vermont, there’s a respect for natural systems.”
Learning about the world
Rachel Moore, executive director of Helen Day Art Center, curated Jeremijenko’s exhibit and said it’s “not your traditional exhibition.
“It’s about our relationships with the environment and how we participate,” Moore said. “It’s important to be constantly moving forward and participating in making the world a better place. All of these ideas are really important to learning about the world through the language of art. It’s hard to change hearts and minds through data.”
Art, and in particular Jeremijenko’s exhibit, represents “a visceral level of understanding and learning,” Moore said. “Helen Day Art Center, as a community art center, we have a responsibility to our constituency” to promote learning about the world.