An Interview with Alexandra Chang

By Amy Brady

Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve loved the fall. The wool sweaters, the turning leaves, the pumpkins – autumn is about as cozy as it gets. I hope that wherever this post reaches you, you’re enjoying something like coziness and comfort.

Of course, the world beyond my warm and cozy apartment is anything but comforting. With an election looming, a hurricane barreling toward the Gulf coast, the Western United States on fire, and oh yeah, an ongoing global pandemic, every day feels chaotic, even terrifying. I don’t have a cure-all solution for anxiety, but I can offer a balm: CritterVision. I discovered this trail cam last week, and it’s been my go-to soul-soother every day since. The cam appears to be located in South Carolina and streams 24/7. So far I’ve spotted a raccoon, a possum, some squirrels, a bunny, a whole mess of birds, and what might have been a fox. Enjoy!

And now, another soul balm for you. This month I interviewed art historian, curator, activist, and all-around excellent human, Alexandra Chang. Alexandra is an Associate Professor of Practice with the Art History program at Rutgers University-Newark, the founder of the Climate Working Group (of which I’m a member!), and the director of the Global Asia/Pacific Art Exchange and Virtual Asian American Art Museum with the A/P/A Institute at NYU. Her list of accolades goes on, and so does her boundless energy. She recently launched the EcoArt Salon at Rutgers University-Newark, which showcases the work of artists who are thinking about ecology, climate change, and the environment in their art. The salons encourage dialogue across disciplines about how art and the sciences might work together on issues of climate change. Below, we talk further about the salons, her thoughts on the power of art to address the climate crisis, and other exciting projects. 

Please tell us a bit about your background. How did you get involved in ecologically-focused art?

I can’t think of an exact moment when I started working with artists on ecologically-focused art, but in 2009 I co-curated the special exhibition 2012+ with curator and model Mie Iwatsuki for The Drop: Urban Art Infill arts festival. I remember The Drop as a special time when there were a bunch of us – curators, artists, architects, web folks, designers – all coming together on Wednesday nights from 9 p.m. until the early hours in a space in Chelsea to talk about the state of the world. It was 2008, so we were working in the creative fields amid the financial crisis and we were all finding it difficult to get funding for projects. We were also concerned about climate change and the potential end of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. We were wondering about our futures, our role as urban dwellers, and what we could do.

The idea of The Drop – a 2-week arts festival addressing climate change and our relationships to it as residents of New York City – emerged. Artists painted in the streets with the public, designers worked with the detritus of the festival to design outfits, the DJ booths were solar-powered. The Joan Mitchell Foundation and The Cue Foundation were located on our block near our building and they brought art educators onto the street and provided tables and chairs. It was an amazing moment of everyone getting together. 

Kickstarter had just started so we crowdsourced the funding and also had about 30 sponsors working together to make the event possible. Again, it was the recession but that made it a special time for working together. The special exhibition 2012+ took place in one of the 8,000-square-foot spaces we used – one space showcased sustainable design while the other featured the exhibition. It was designed as a maze or labyrinth through which you would go from works engaged with dystopian futures and current ecological issues to possibilities and dreams for the future. We ended with Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree on which folks could write and hang tags with their wishes for the future. These are now preserved in the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland.

What is the EcoArt Salon at Rutgers? And what do you hope it achieves?

The EcoArt Salon is hosted by the Paul Robeson Galleries and sponsored by the Clement A. Price Institute at Rutgers University-Newark. The EcoArt salon began to showcase the work of the many artists engaged in ecoart practices, but it is also meant to be a community where cross-disciplinary dialogue can be generative. The salons are small in size and allow for meaningful dialogue about what people are working on. They also allow for the possibility of collaborating. Artists, curators, students, faculty, community folks interested in the topic, and a range of others usually attend. We used to host with dinner, which always opens up dialogue, but it is also meant to be informal, inviting discussion rather than lecturing. The salons have grown a small community of folks who keep coming back, so meaningful connections and dialogue can happen. Now, it’s virtual. We just started back up again since the pandemic began and while we can no longer provide dinner, the online format has brought participants from across the world into dialogue, underlining the globally connected and comparative issues of climate and environment happening today.

The first EcoArt Salon at Paul Robeson Galleries with artist Katherine Behar, October 2019.

Artists of all kinds are increasingly interested in addressing climate change in their art. Why do you think this is?

There is an urgency. I think we can all feel it, from the fires in Australia, California, Colorado, and elsewhere that have never been so intense, to extreme weather happening all around us. Artists have always been addressing the issues and contexts of their time, and climate change is possibly the most intense issue of our time, happening right now. It only makes sense that artists are addressing it.

This is perhaps the ultimate – if impossible to answer – question for climate-minded artists: What role does art play in public discourse surrounding climate change? Does it bring greater awareness to the issue? Could it possibly motivate people to take action?

It’s an interesting question and it has come up during the EcoArt salons; artists are not sure if they are being effective. There is a lot of self-questioning. But I have to say that art plays an immense role and is powerful. What these artists are doing is underlining important issues that are being ignored. They are also addressing our minds, bodies, and spirits. Artists work in multiple mediums: embodied practice, conceptual work, visualizations that help us better understand or bring our attention to things that have been veiled from our perception for one reason or another. The term “spirit” is important; there is something about our emotions that is often ignored. Climate change, and the art that addresses issues related to it, encompasses and involves our fears, collective grief, and hopes as well. 

You’re the founder of the Climate Working Group. Why did you start this group?

This group started in 2017 and the timing isn’t insignificant. It was when the U.S. government administration changed and the new administration started cutting support for policies and the data and science behind building awareness of and slowing climate change. Not only was information not being funded, but it was being erased. The group began at New York University with the Asian/Pacific American Institute, where I was working at the time. The Institute was rethinking its foci given all the changes happening with the change in administration and the need to concentrate more than ever on issues of environment and race. We had always been working on projects and with folks engaged in environmental and racial justice, especially in the Pacific, and my personal research interests also focused on these topics. I was able to help instigate and build this network, which has shifted a bit and now pretty much sustains itself. The Climate Working Group began and continues as a cross-disciplinary group of doers who are active in their respective fields in fighting the climate crisis. They collaborate on discussions and projects and create an important, supportive network.

A conversation between artists, faculty, and community members at a shared dinner at the EcoArt Salon.

What’s next for you? Any projects, research, or events that you’d like my readers to watch for?

I’m working on a publication with the Climate Working Group that was just approved by Routledge. I’ve also turned a lot of my focus on practices of healing and care during this time of pandemic and eco-crisis. I am trying, along with community urban farmers including Newark artist and urban farming advocate Jamie Bruno; Clan Mother, farmer, healer, and artist Michaeline Picaro of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation; and colleagues from across the different Rutgers campuses, to bring a healing community garden to Rutgers Newark at the Price Institute garden. Fingers crossed that this will happen and you can all join us there.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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