By Marlene Cimons
Alexis Frasz believes we use art to create meaning, and to define what we think is possible — or impossible. This is one of the reasons she’s exploring the role of art in addressing climate change.
Frasz, a writer and researcher, wants to build public support for tackling environmental challenges using art. She thinks that art can help people cope with the emotional toll of climate change, giving them a way to deal with their fear, grief, and anger. It can also help people imagine a healthier, more sustainable world. “Arts and culture reminds us that we are makers and, in fact, we made all this,” she said.
When she first began thinking about climate change, Frasz found only a few others who were looking at the problem through a cultural lens, so she and her colleagues set about conducting research to learn more about how art helps communities face environmental issues. Now, she and her team at Helicon, a consulting company she co-directs, are working with advocates to apply their research in the real world.
“We work with funders and environmental organizations to help them understand how to work with artists, and help the artists figure out how to have an impact,” she said. The goal is to have art — folk art, theater, film, literature, music, crafts, dance, and storytelling — inform urban planning, engineering, and design.
One such project, the Water Bar, is a vehicle to prompt conversations around water issues using the setting of an actual bar — one that serves water, rather than alcohol — as a community-driven art project. Located in the arts district of Minneapolis, the bar features art exhibitions, dance workshops, music and poetry performances, and community art events. Visitors can sit at the bar and taste water from various local sources, and talk about water and the memories and ideas their water-tasting evokes.
“It’s a very creative and artistic space,” Frasz said. “Culture is more than just a mural. It’s community building. It’s storytelling. But the focal point is water conservation and water quality.”
Frasz has drawn inspiration from other initiatives that are using art to make sustainability more appealing, such as the Land Art Generator Initiative, which aims to turn wind turbines and solar arrays into art. The organization sponsors competitions for public artworks that also produce energy. Artists and engineers come up with designs that are judged by members of the communities that could host the projects.
Frasz also pointed to the work of artist Michael Singer, who works with ecologists and engineers to design gardens, buildings, and infrastructure projects that are integrated with nature. She said his works “improve water and soil, restore ecosystems, capture rainwater — and they are also beautiful and engaging public spaces.”
Frasz, 38, grew up in rural Maine and studied cultural anthropology at Princeton University. After college, she began consulting in the nonprofit arts sector, but it didn’t feel like her calling. She also studied Kung Fu, which drew her to acupuncture and Chinese medicine. After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area from New York City in 2010, she began a graduate program in Chinese medicine and was poised to change careers, but then several things happened.
Her hometown began fighting the construction of a massive highway across Maine to transport tar sands oil from Canada. Frasz said she also learned that the herbal remedies she favored were threatened by pollution in China. Finally, she read Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, in which Klein argues that, to stop climate change, we must reckon with the excesses of capitalism.
“She implies that we have to not only work on technical solutions to climate change — of which we actually have many — but operate on the level of mindsets and worldviews so that these technical solutions become politically and socially possible,” Frasz said.
Frasz felt art could help change worldviews. One group that helped inspire that belief was Clear Creek Creative, an artist collective based in Kentucky coal country, where coal production and its rapid decline have caused untold suffering.
“Coal destroyed people’s health and the environment, but the industry was also the main economic provider in the region for generations,” she said. “So, in 2011 the prevailing conversation in the community was about the need to bring back coal. People just couldn’t imagine anything else, even though the coal industry had been extremely harmful it had also defined them.”
Community artists invited residents to join each other for meals of homegrown food, and to play music and tell stories in order to help people reconnect to the land, their culture, and each other. Farmers, former mine workers, and others shared personal stories about their relationship with coal, stressing what the region meant to them and their dreams for their future, she said. From these, they created a work of participatory theater that told their tale.
The artists forged bonds across race and ideology. “They had a renewed sense of community pride and a belief in a future that didn’t involve fracking,” Frasz said. Community members organized Frack Free Foothills to resist the developers. The collective has also been working with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and other groups in the region to find ways to transition from a coal-based economy.
This is the power of culture. As science fiction author Ursula Le Guin once said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” Resistance and change, Le Guin continued, begins in art.
Frasz agrees. “The root of our environmental problems isn’t actually technological or scientific. It is cultural — our beliefs, values, social norms, worldviews,” she said. “If we want to change the structures and systems out there, we have to change ourselves in here.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.