Saving the World: A Conversation with Alisa Petrosova
Alisa Petrosova couldn’t get out of bed. She had weathered one too many hits, between Bret Kavanaugh’s nomination and her increasing awareness of climate change’s ceaseless march. A senior at Cooper Union, Petrosova shifted her focus from art to infecting art institutions with a commitment to the most urgent crisis at hand, the climate emergency. Founder of the Cooper Climate Coalition amongst other high profile projects, Petrosova is well on her way to becoming a key change maker in the New York art scene.
Shanti Escalante is a model, entrepreneur, PhD, Hobby Lobby senior executive, and contributing editor for STP focused on culture and climate change. She was raised by a 90 year old lithium heiress in the Hamptons before being shipped off to NYC to finish school, where she has since remained. She chatted with Alisa Petrosova to discuss how Petrosova's passion towards influencing climate change in arts communities came to be.
Shanti Escalante: Could you walk me through what you're hoping the program “What Will You Tell Next Year?” is going to look like for the people who end up getting the fellowship?
Alisa Petrosova: We're thinking about [hosting] intimate meetings that would happen on zoom, where people would share their projects and ideas with each other and just be able to chat. Then there'll be four Zoom critiques that are curated based on themes. For example, if there were three projects that had to do with apocalypse we would put them together and have a mentor, an artist that is older or well-known who deals with that in their own practice, [to aid in that]. We’d also promote an open critique for people to come and see the work as it's developing. Then there will be a final presentation in May or June. The format of what that is TBD based on COVID guidelines–whether there'll be some kind of in-person launch or this will stay completely virtual.
SE: And the deadline?
AP: The 10th of February.
SE: Where did this project idea come from?
AP: I'm interested in taking cultural institutions, foundations, galleries, the art world, and places that just aren't generally talking about climate as their M.O. and turning them into places for this type of discourse. If you're thinking about starting a space that is climate oriented, then there's only a certain group of people that you're [speaking to] versus, if there's something [within] the arts that can handle this topic, then there's a broader audience, and you're not just preaching to the choir. There are people that you're actually serving new information to. I really wanted to use Serving the People to do that. This was actually beta-launched within the coalition that I run at Cooper [Union]. I wanted to see it reach a broader audience and have a disparate group of people apply who would be interested in doing this kind of [work] on a different scale of platform.
I realized that I wouldn't have the luxury of just addressing art and art history and culture.
SE: I definitely empathize with the urge to bring culture and art together, especially in artistic institutions, which I think are getting involved with climate change but only at a kind buzzword level of engagement. Are there particular artists or creatives who you've seen working with Anthropocene issues in a way that you found to be productive or engaging?
AP: I really appreciate Sondra Perry. She deals with race and ecology and environment, blending that with images of apocalypse, collapse or natural disaster. These various contending crises are interconnected and Perry [shows] that really well.
SE: When did you start getting interested in the climate crisis as something you were going to be engaging with at this level?
AP: I grew up in California, which is a generally eco minded state. You grow up learning to turn the water off when you brush your teeth. But my background was always in the arts. When I got to Cooper, (the shift started) at a class called Interdisciplinary Seminar, where every week different artists, economists, engineers, architects, and people from all various walks of life come [in and speak] with a through line about the climate crisis. Each one of them painted the picture of how the world would be completely different very soon. [Then] the IPC report came out, which was the report that said we had, you know, 12 years (before irreversible climate catastrophe).
Also, the Brett Kavanaugh trials. There was one week where I almost didn't get out of bed. Them, It wasn't immediately like, ah! I'm going to dedicate my life to climate! But soon after coming out of that headspace, I realized that I wouldn't have the luxury of just addressing art and art history and culture. Even if I really wanted to ignore, it at some point I was going to have to face it, so I decided to shift everything I'm doing toward climate awareness and figure out ways in which we may begin to adapt and mitigate.
SE: There's definitely a wall that we all hit.
AP: Yeah. I think COVID kind of gave us a sneak preview, like a dress rehearsal for what it's like to really quickly adapt to something.
SE: I definitely saw a lot of memes [comparing COVID and climate change], which were like, the wave of COVID and behind it, this ultra mega monster tsunami that was climate change. There's always been this narrative with climate change that we can't respond to it properly because it's not a disaster. Then a disaster happens, and it's like, well, it’s not like we're amazing at dealing with that either.
AP: I personally believe that the reason we dealt with COVID relatively quickly, in terms of how the last fastest vaccine took four years, is because we're not saving people, we're saving the economy. If [the economy] didn't suffer so much because of COVID, I don't think we would have gotten that quickly to a vaccine. I think that's the same thing for climate. People are suffering right now, but the economy hasn't yet been hit significantly because of the climate crisis so...
SE: Then, seeing everything that happened at the Capitol is distressing. A lot of these people have their own get back to the wilderness, self-sufficiency fantasy. I don't think people understand the extent to which different visions of living closer to nature have a very, very, very wide political ideological range. But then there’s the climate skeptics.
AP: There's a lot of undoing for us to do politically. How are [things like] air quality or water quality or species extinction politicized? It's because of mass misinformation. The fact is, oil companies hired the same people that released the misinformation [to support] Big Tobacco. The unlearning and the undoing is a lot slower of a process than the learning and the doing unfortunately. Consequently, we've lost 50 years we didn't have. So I think, in terms of politics, the uglier it gets, the more time we lose.
SE: Then again, I remember first getting into school, thinking ‘okay, climate skepticism is something that I'm really interested in.’ In the four years since then, it feels like climate skepticism isn't even the issue at hand, you know?
AP: There are different boats, too. There are the people that think, “Oh, the only people we need to be talking to are the climate skeptics.” And then there's a whole other boat where it's like, “just leave them behind. We don't have the time to connect.”
SE: And why bother, sometimes. There's such a weird form of discourse that takes place online, which I think was primarily affirmed during Gamergate and has continued on since then, which feels like you can have this pool of senseless and contradictory chatter and it'll just confirm itself without any real logic or centrality. Trying to approach people that are inside of that–you're just going to go in circles forever.
AP: I was working on this TV show about climate change and we had a lot of experts come in and to chat with the writers’ room. We spoke to somebody that runs a specific company that tries to clear [up] misinformation. It's just really crazy to see this graph of the day before the UN climate action summit, and there are these giant spikes [in content] to basically drown all the [relevant] hashtags so that anything that's tagged becomes drowned in misinformation.
SE: Circling back a bit closer to your upcoming STP program, this is a question I've been thinking a lot about: what can art do in an emergency, and particularly, a climate emergency?
AP: I think building community is a way of fighting the climate crisis and being able to introduce people to it and kind of slow down, working against the speed that we're forced to [operate at] right now; the transactional nature that we're forced into every day.
SE: Do you need to believe in the future to participate in trying to save it?
AP: You need to want a future to participate in, you have to believe in humanity a little bit, believe that humanity should continue. I read this book by Rebecca Solnit called Hope in the Dark. She was saying about France under the monarchy, that if they didn't imagine life outside of monarchy, there would've been no revolution. In my head, that’s a driving force.
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