Climate Change, the Arts, and Massive Events: Bringing HABITAT to Town I talk with 516 ARTS' Teresa Buscemi about putting HABITAT together

GhostFood Trailer by Miriam Simun.

GhostFood Trailer by Miriam Simun.

You’ve got to hand it to those folks over at 516 ARTS. When it comes to consistency, there’s no Albuquerque gallery that comes close. When it comes to eclecticism, Albuquerque is lucky to have them. When it comes to straight up curatorial instinct, one might say that 516 ARTS has the art world’s ear all to themselves.

The fall programming at 516 is now the example to be beaten. HABITAT: Exploring Climate Change Through the Arts is a series of exhibitions and events including Knew Normal, Off the Charts, and Warm and Fuzzy which are already underway. Starting this week their series of events goes one step further, with a Downtown Block Party and a number of talks by visiting artists.

To get a handle on the timely and vast programming this season, I talked with Teresa Buscemi, 516 ARTS’ programs and new media manager.

Josh Stuyvesant: 516 ARTS is bringing it to the yard this fall with HABITAT. How does this season of programming at 516 compare to previous seasons in terms of sheer magnitude?

It’s always amazing to me when we reach out to someone like Mel Chin and the partnership works!

Teresa Buscemi: I think this project is fairly comparable to some of our bigger collaborations in the past, like ISEA2012, LAND ART and Digital Latin America, but it has taken on a little different form. While we don’t have the conference attached to this like we did for ISEA2012 and Digital Latin America, we have carried over the Block Party event and added things like film screenings on Civic Plaza, keynotes and talks throughout the season. However, I do think the theme of climate change has certainly opened this season up to a much larger audience since it’s a topic that applies to every person on this planet.

The fact that there’s a sense of urgency and responsibility surrounding climate change definitely contributes to this season’s scope. Have you as a gallery felt more pressure for this one?

I don’t think we’ve felt pressure, necessarily. We’re presenting climate change in a way that most people have not thought about it yet—through art. While it’s important to look at statistics, reports and graphs, it’s also important to find new ways to make this information accessible to more people. By allowing audiences to learn about climate change, what it’s done, what may yet happen and how each person could possible contribute to a brighter future through creative and interactive methods, it allows for the opportunity for absorption of this information in a way that may be easier to grasp. Climate change is a vast topic with many facets; it can be very overwhelming.

Describe for me the general feeling of participating in the operation of a gallery. Do you think the curating, showing, and hosting of art is often more, perhaps, stressful than the making of it?

I think it’s a whole different beast! As an artist, I can get stressed about how the piece is or isn’t working (both technically and conceptually speaking). I can also get stressed about how it’s received by audiences and how it functions in the space. On the gallery side of it, my concern is much more with making sure we present the work the way the artist intends to the best of our abilities. For me, one of the most rewarding parts of this job is to work closely with an artist to help their vision come to fruition within our space.

I recently saw somewhere that event coordinator was the fifth most stressful job, only to be bested by the likes of firefighter, army personnel, etc. Aside from your role in operating 516 ARTS, you’re also the director of the Downtown Block Party. Without treating this too much like a therapy session, what all goes in to the massive endeavor of throwing a Block Party?

Organization. I have to approach planning every Block Party with an extreme sense of direction, organization, self-guided deadlines and many many many gym sessions.

Tell me which art project at the Downtown Block Party you’re most excited about.

Just one? I’ll try…GhostFood will be very exciting for me to see in action. I’ve been working very closely with the artist (who is based in NY) to bring GhostFood to life at the Block Party. The project will give audience members an experience of what it could be like to experience certain foods in the future that may no longer be available due to extinction brought on by climate change. This experience will happen through olfactory and taste senses. I’m also looking forward to experiencing Mark Lee Koven‘s Taking One’s Temperature. Mark is installing his work inside a dome that audiences will enter to become immersed in an environment that will activate all the body’s senses to explore our changing climate. The ABQ UNM CityLab Parklet design will be really exciting, too! I can’t pick just one project!

Mel Chin. There are artists, and then there are superartists, creators who take it upon themselves to directly effect change—social, political, or environmental. Mel Chin is one such superartist. How excited are you to hear from him?

It’s always amazing to me when we reach out to someone like Mel Chin and the partnership works! We always hope for any response at all, so when it’s a positive one we’re thrilled. And when someone like Mel not only contributes to the exhibition with his work, but also comes here to speak and engage our audience, it’s very special. We’re all really excited to host him here and proud to share him with the Albuquerque community.

Mel Chin - Pyragraph

Bank of the Sun (detail) by Mel Chin. Photo by Michael Stravato.

Can you speak to this theme of responsibility in art. Thinking about it in terms of climate change, though something like 97% of scientists agree that climate change is happening and is cause by humans, there’s still this great sense of disbelief. And then someone like James Balog comes out with this chillingly beautiful and horrifying film, Chasing Ice, wherein glaciers are literally shattering apart, and the effect echoes through the art and normal worlds alike, and people say, “Oh shit, this is happening.” Why are artists so important in sounding the warning bells, and should we do more to further take on that responsibility?

I think artists have a way of understanding and explaining the world that scientists don’t. I know we’ve all heard people stand in museums and say, “I don’t get this,” or “My five-year-old could do that.” But when discussing something that has scientific evidence and is already so obscure, I think art is a really useful vehicle for helping people—both artist and audience—understand the issues at hand. And maybe this is because artists make work through their own paths of discovery. I tend to think artists create from a place of exploration and desire to understand. Art is everywhere, not just in museums and galleries. It has the potential to access every corner of our world and therefore every part of the world’s population.

I’d like to pat you on the back Teresa. You’ve put in a lot of work with your colleagues to make this season wicked promising. What’s in it for you?

I get to help make these things happen! Despite the amount of work, and sometimes stress, it takes to put something like this together, the behind-the-scenes part of getting to know the artists and watching the ideas grow on paper to real life is so exciting. It’s always an invaluable learning experience and a great opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people.

516 ARTS has several upcoming events in Albuquerque:

Downtown Block Party and the screening of Chasing Ice are both a part of Umbrella Week.

Cedra Wood - Pyragraph

Lemmings by Cedra Wood.


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About Josh Stuyvesant

Josh is a mover and shaker and doer and maker. He makes things with words, woods, metal and mettle. He cofounded Humbird NM in 2013 and is dedicated to giving Albuquerque artists the leg up they so deserve.

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