Kissing frogs. Eating ice cream. Ziplining to school. These are just a few ways Australian artist and technologist Natalie Jeremijenko wants you to help the environment. The New York University professor seeks to use new technologies, generally manufactured by large corporations and the military, and use those technologies for social and environmental good.
“I’m not a science fiction writer,” says Jeremijenko, who runs NYU’s Environmental Health Clinic, where students receive prescriptions for improving environmental health. “The more radical way to redesign socioecological systems is to understand that we are designing within complex systems, and we have very specific opportunities that we can use and exploit that require participation, not fascist bullying, and engaging the imagination. I know it works to engage people’s imagination.”
Her recent work revolves around re-imagining flight and food systems. Flight is one of the most environmentally harmful things that we do, and while Jeremijenko says algae fuels provide incremental improvements, she wants to radically re-think urban mobility. Piggybacking on the FAA-approved light sport aircraft and easily attainable sport pilot license, she wants to use ziplines and the newly released Icon A5, a personal plane that can land on water, to build less harmful and environmentally beneficial flight solutions.
At the San Jose biennial, Jeremijenko installed a wetlanding zipline downtown. By landing in wetlands, she hopes that one day we might be able to restore these native areas that so many American airports have destroyed in favor of building runways. With the advent of new planes that can land on water, she wants to market a wetlanding strip to go with these planes. The zipline demonstrates how reconstructing the wing shape and changing the landing location can help the environment.
“My kids want to be able to zipline to school,” Jeremijenko says. “And from a parent’s point of view, it’s a safe, emissionless, quiet [way] that’s actually much safer than going in a car or any other method.”
Jeremijenko’s food research also focuses on the wetlands, and she runs the Cross(x)Species Adventure Club, which creates culinary concoctions that are delicious for both humans and animals. The foods also encourage human and animal interaction, contrary to those omnipresent “Do Not Feed the Animals” signs at every national park. For wet kisses, an edible marshmallow cocktail, Jeremijenko and her team inject lividium, which produces anti-fungal agents, into marshmallow fluff. When frogs have these anti-fungal agents on their skin they can fight the deadly chytrid fungus, which is a large factor in the extinction of amphibians.
“When you bite into the marshmallow, your lips are inoculated with the lividium,” she explains. “You are equipped to kiss the frog and protect them from this deadly fungus.”
Jeremijenko’s work has been featured at the 2006 Whitney Biennial of American Art and the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Triennial 2006-7. Other projects include fishing with nutritious lures that contain mercury-fighting agents, and ice cream made from water buffalo milk, a creamier delicacy that will create a demand for wetland water buffalo grazing, thereby strengthening their environments. For Jeremijenko, environmentalism is not a passive act of cutting back, it’s all about getting out there and doing more.
“How do we use this massive force of people as a social good, instead of this whole idea that environmentalism is all about…do less, reduce your carbon footprint?” Jeremijenko asks. “I’ve had two students independently come to me and say I care about the environment; I think I should commit suicide. Of course it’s the logical extension: They’ll have a smaller carbon footprint if they commit suicide. [It’s a] whole paradigm of what we can do less of, versus what we can do and how we can make it good.”