Wondrous Engagement: Natalie Jeremijenko

The xClinic’s Farmacy is a distributed urban farm designed to improve environmental health, augment biodiversity, and produce delicious edibles. Image: xClinic

Natalie Jeremijenko is an Associate Professor in the Visual Art Department, NYU. Previously she was on the Visual Arts faculty at UCSD, Faculty of Engineering at Yale University, a visiting professor at Royal College of Art in London, a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Public Understanding of Science at Michigan State University, and a Visiting Global Distinguished Professor at they NYU College of Arts and Sciences. Natalie will be speaking as part of This Public Life's conference program. Read more about Natalie.

Natalie Jeremijenko blends art, engineering, environmentalism, biochemistry and more to create real-life experiments that enable social change.

Claire Martin: Sociologist Saskia Sassen describes the city as a place where “those who lack power… [are] able to make a history, a politics, even if they do not get empowered.” Can you expand on what you frequently describe as the “crisis of agency”? Do you see this as a peculiarly urban condition?

Natalie Jeremijenko: The idea of a crisis of agency is an idea that we can all identify as a total powerlessness, no matter what our expertise, no matter what fancy landscape architecture firm we work in, no matter what big university we’re affiliated with. [It’s] the idea of climate destabilization, the condition of the Anthropocene, where we think about these biogeochemical processes that we’re told we’re responsible for, that we are driving, but we’re driving with our eyes closed. The idea that there are these anonymous forces over which we feel so little agency, so little capacity to change, or in any way act in accordance with our own concerns. It’s a kind of “response-ability” and lack of agency that we feel. Signing petitions, changing a light bulb and taking the bike lane, are necessary but not sufficient. What’s interesting about the crisis of agency is that it’s not a class issue at all, [and] I don’t think it’s a particularly urban issue. It is that sense of what to do and leveraging the capacity to do.

But where do we get that capacity, where is the invitation? The opposite to the crisis of agency is an invitation to radically redesign our relationship to natural systems as a shared cultural challenge in which we feel the excitement, the wonder and the invitation. Welcome to the Anthropocene – now you can take responsibility, now you can respond. I think very few of us feel invited to [act]. It’s not just an invitation to reimagine but to take those imaginings and design them now, here in your local neighbourhood, in your urban environment. That’s where it’s radically different, that’s where it’s a break from received environmentalism.

CM: Can you talk more about the spectacle of your work? The desire to create “wondrous engagement” through shared public memories of a possible future?

NJ: Wonder is my favourite human emotion – it was Rachel Carson’s thesis [subject] and primary strategy. I think we should credit her with inspiring a movement that really privileged wonder as a powerful social organizing and particularizing [tool]. It’s something that’s very personal; it’s being human, mesmerized by the extraordinary specificity and precision of how natural systems work.

Originally published in Landscape Architecture Australia - May 2015 (issue 146). Read full article.