Natalie Jeremijenko Ignites a Fire Under the Seats of CADRE Students.

By Danielle Siembieda

In October 2007 CADRE students had the opportunity to meet with Natalie Jeremijenko, during the FUSE lecture series. Her background can be summarized with credits in science, art and activism. Her visit, which included an informal salon-adventure with CADRE students as well as a lecture, introduced new perspectives of rhetoric, activism and art. Jeremijenko's critical analysis of rhetoric common to the activist communities is integral to her vision of a participatory culture and how participation can be fostered through the repurposing the methods of bio art and   Her message pushes for new thought and action for artists and environmentalists. She changes perceptions by awakening commonly unnoticed issues within environmental health, art and activism. 

The boundaries between artists and activists can be blurred and often times the two are the same. What I have known activism to be is an effort amongst like-minded people attempting to influence others by educating them or making them aware of an issue through actions and critique. Artists often take the statistical information given to them by the scientific community and create a visual piece to make the public aware of an issue.  This time-honored tradition in activism and art has become ineffective, because although people may know the issue and most may be like-minded, many are not action oriented. Actions would involve changing of systems; behaviors and truly resolving a problem where that one solution does not create another nor does it isolate another group. During Jeremijenko’s visit she created a dialogue that stumped some CADRE students by questioning and objecting to a vocabulary used so often by social issue organizing groups. This questioning of rhetoric especially influenced this author’s foundation in social action and community organizing.

Collaboration, consumption and conservation are words often used by many social justice and activist groups. “Whenever I hear the word collaboration, I reach for my gun,” said Jeremijenko in a salon interview during her visit to SJSU. She prefers to use the phrase structured participation. She sees this as an algorithm of recognition in that everyone involved needs to take responsibility, acknowledge credit and see a true benefit to them personally. The structure itself does not allow the participant to take a passive role. The second word consumption or consumer also is on the X-list for Jeremijenko. The message sent out today involves ways to consume less which in fact does not solve the problem it creates a token excuse for not doing any action. Consumption is a minimal part of our daily activity when the rest of the day we take no action.  Again she confronts our tendency towards passivity and being somewhat lazy about fundamental personal responsibility. Jeremijenko does not see our focus on consumer spending the right direction for artists to spend their time and energy. The third word conservation also falls in line with a token excuse. Is it really proactive to preserve and conserve wetlands, energy or forests? Is that all we can do? We are at a point where we need to move beyond rhetoric and into meaningful action. What forms of meaningful action are open to the artist?

If the role of the artist is no longer just to make people aware by visualizing the scientific data laid before them then what is the artist’s role in science? According to Jeremijenko the artists can contribute using both their methods of material evidence and most importantly that the artist can stand for the “every-man.” Artists are not going to be credited with the scientific evidence but they can translate and communicate with a common person. In truth is whom most artists want to talk to. For artists to move from a visual representation of an issue to a participatory method new practices have been created to make it possible using and bio art.

Jeremijenko’s art moves beyond awareness to participation and re-purposing. In a example of How Things are Made Jeremijenko’s students create a visual essay dissecting an object of interest and de-reifying the object so that the labor and process are shown. The essay is then posted and updated with students from several universities. This project also re-purposes the labor and process by enticing students to improve of their chosen commodity. Ernestine Daubner, professor at Concordia University in the Department of Art History, comments on other work by Jeremijenko that prequels her recent projects. “Such post-structuralist underpinnings coincide with the artist's social activist mission: to transform public perceptions and to alter the social and material realities of communities. Actively engaging the public, her artworks facilitate an open-ended, community-based knowledge that puts ‘empirical evidence in the public sphere. As such, her representational strategies serve to shift the structure of participation from a passive consumptive model of received information to one that facilitates active interpretation” (Daubner).  Jeremijenko makes people think about her work pushes them to explore the underlying issue or theme.

Through example, Natalie shows us how to re-purpose. Her recent bio art project has repurposed the common health clinic from a plain vanilla concept of a rigid institutional setting to a problem presenter-problem solver-public participant center. Jeremijenko describes the common mentality that the way we can contribute to the environmental crisis is through the role of the consumer as Global Anxiety Disorder. The Environmental Health Clinic allows for people to present a real problem concerning an issue like water pollution while a group of artists, engineers and more works on solutions to the problem. Trying to resolve environmental issues politically can make a person inpatient so the clients of the EHC are called “In-Patients”. The public can then use the results of the EHC in order to create real change. This sort of approach challenges our public systems and questions why we cannot take these similar concerns or issues we are confronted with and resolve them through creative, proactive and cross discipline manners.

Cadre students had a first hand experience with Jeremijenko during a Geocaching walk around the Guadalupe River Basin. The structure of the river basin is an example of a problem that might be resolved in the EHC. Jeremijenko describes the design of the basin as militaristically engineered. The Guadalupe River Basin is an example of why we need a group such as the EHC to actively resolve a public health issue such as water resources in a creative, participatory and proactive manner.

An alternative structure would be to create the water at eye level in order to change an individual point of view. Often we look down at the water, as it becomes more of a reflection. How would our perception change if we looked eye level at the surface? What would we see? The illusion a body of water can give can be so powerful. Its reflection can awaken or subdue a person. It is like the myth of Narcissus in the Ovid tale where he is punished after seeing his reflection in a pool of water. "What he has seen he does not understand, but what he sees he is on fire for, and the same error both seduces and deceives his eyes." (Ovid) It is this concept of ones position with a body of water thats purpose serves as part of a social system that feeds, cleanses and destroys. Such examples could be of reservoirs,  sewage treatment plants and the Guadalupe river basin. What does it mean if the water is at eye level? Can you confront it? Can you change it? What is the basin telling you? "The myth also revealed the combined power of water and mirrors to erase the borders between reality and illusion, self and other, life and death, and open up a whole world of images." (de Pontfarcy, 25)

The artist’s role in social change needs to move beyond an awareness level. No longer can it be acceptable to band-aid issues on the environment. Natalie Jeremijenko has created a stir amongst artists, environmentalists and scientists and other disciplines that have long standing traditions. Jeremijenko’s ability to cross disciplines and boundaries have been demonstrated through her use of creating environments that are not limited to gallery space and participatory spaces where common systems are repurposed, rethought and action.  Jeremijenko’s visit to SJSU’s CADRE lab since has ignited students to review the etymology while looking at what is important about their art and if it is there to serve a purpose for change, how active will that change be?


Daubner, Ernestine. "Natalie Jeremijenko’s Clones and Robots: Repetition/ Difference and Other Subversive Representational Strategies." Parachute p 92-106 no 112 2003

de Pontfarcy, Yolanda "The Myth of Narcissus in Courtly Literature" Echoes of Narcissus. Berghahn Books. NYC, New York. 2001 pp 25

Environmental Health Clinic 

Fuse Podcast of Natalie Jeremijenko

Ovid. "Echo and Narcissus." Metamorphoses. October 10, 2007

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