Eileen Roscina: You completed an Arctic Circle Residency expedition aboard the Tallship Antigua, what did that experience reveal to you about sustainable climate futures and about your art practice?
Regan Rosburg: What was weird about that experience was being in a place that most people don't get a chance to go to. It is a place that most people don't see for themselves. Prior to my trip I heard this abstraction about how it's heating up faster than any other place in the world, and how the glaciers are melting and that there is plastic traveling all the way up to the north in the water. But being there and seeing the real-time melt was eye opening because you have all this information in your head about the context of what's happening. You're aware that it's this geopolitical center of the world where people want to get a handle on the resources that are there and the shipping lanes that are opening up. When you see an actual glacier calve, when I first did we — myself and a few other people were in a little zodiac moving towards this glacier — I had tears running down my face. I had a visceral, physical response just to the sublime aspect of it, this unbelievable thing that represents this huge amount of time because it's not just a glacier — it's compressed snowflakes from thousands of years ago that have marched from miles and miles to the edge and then collapse. It was really a shift in perspective for me from reading about the changes that are happening up there to actually seeing it and to know that the decisions being made at the equator, in the United States, or in any different country, affect the whole globe and are melting things in the Arctic. One of the things that was really effective for us on the ship was this map on the wall that would show the retreat of the glacier from the past hundred years and we would reference it when we went into different inlets or fjords where the glaciers used to come together. How that affects climate futures is that it puts it in the perspective of immediacy. It's sad, the contrast of something taking so long to form, to have this very slow natural progression and the glaciers calving so quickly. They are supposed to calve, but I knew that even my choice to fly there was also contributing to the collapses. It kind of turned everything upside down because you want to help, and you want to see, and you want to bring that information back as an artist, but at the same time you're part of this whole machine that's causing the problem. I have that information in my head of what I was witnessing, while I was there, like the migrations underneath the ice that are happening and the Arctic terns’ species migration that was happening at the time. I'm still reflecting on what I saw there.
ER: In what ways can art contribute to the framing, reframing and understanding of the threats of climate change?
RR: I think one of the most important aspects of the reframing is combining science, with emotion and empathy. The science aspect of it is an abstract notion. We hear these numbers and we hear about temperatures, through photographs or videos like James Balog’s documentation of melting ice. I examined the ice retreat through a work I did, where I bought plastic back from the glaciers, which is part of not just consumption but an examination of the way in which the glaciers are melting with the heavier plastics freezing into the ice on the bottom with heavier plastics. The emotional aspect of it is important. Part of what I try to convey in my work is the aspect of biophilia and this idea that we are all connected, because I feel that the pompous arrogance ideology that keeps us consuming and causing climate change is this idea of separation from nature and the environment, which is simply not true. Part of what art does is it recontextualizes this idea that the choices we make, and the things that we do, and the human organism that we are is absolutely not separate from the planet. And also, we are not separate from what's causing climate change.
ER: What does science help you achieve in your art practice?
RR: Art and science work really well together to draw on each other. Science draws on art for the emotional reframing and recontextualizing of these abstract ideas and then art can rely on these abstract ideas to provide substance and a strong foundation from which to pull to convey emotion. Those two things work very well in tandem together. I think that when people have these abstract numbers and statistics — there's so many and they're so fast changing — that when you have an emotional interruption from an art piece, it can slow a person down and put them right in the moment to have to deal with the reality in a different way.
ER: What does a sustainable future mean to you?
RR: Sustainability needs to be immediate. Things need to be implemented very quickly and that requires a mindset shift of seeing ourselves as connected to the environment, which is where art has a role. Localization. We naturally rely on things to come from far away, but I feel like the pandemic disruption put more of a focus on how things need to be, with more balanced local resources. It puts the power back into the local communities and keeps money circulating within those communities. That in and of itself is more sustainable financially, socially, and socio-economically. There needs to be better ideas for packaging. This ubiquitous plastic packaging and the amount of packaging we have are completely unsustainable. I found yogurt containers in the Arctic from who knows how long ago but that's true anywhere. A move to green energy and green energy storage — giving people incentives to switch towards those options, less meat consumption, crop rotation. All of this fits into sustainable agriculture, which is a huge producer of greenhouse gases. A national recycling plan, which I'm surprised at this point in 2021 we don't have a national cycling plan. Recycling at this point is so confusing for most people and so many companies have lost funding that they just don't do it. Ever since the green fence went up and the national sword policy dropped in China our recycling structure completely fell apart. A lot of it's going straight into the landfill or being burned. I think the most important thing for sustainability is a reframing and this question, we need to ask ourselves, which is: why do we need to keep growing our economies? The idea of “enough” needs to be addressed more. How much more stress can we put on people and the environment to keep growing instead of doing what nature does, which is to have enough and recycle their gifts of their life back into the system. I think sustainability actually starts with the idea of what is enough rather than the idea of growth. With our capitalistic model it's hard for many to understand why we would do that but there again is the ego involved. Our separation from nature and this pompous arrogance of humans being better than nature, that it must bend to our will, is asinine. The thing about Covid is that it forced us to realize that some of the systems that we have in place don't need to be that way. We don't have to travel for business meetings all the time. We can work from home, we can have a better work life balance, if the system supports us to do so. And people, given that balance, are happier and more productive anyway because they're able to do things more on their own terms. Sustainability is also about mental health.
ER: Can you speak to the concepts of environmental melancholia, collective social mania and biophilia in your research, and how these manifest in your art practice?
RR: When one is investigating nature or studying nature or climate change this sadness inherently sets in because it's not just about the beauty and the evolution — it's about the fact that everything is in a drained state and collapsing. My work in part investigates loss head on and faces the idea that when we don't mourn something that we're losing we enter a state of unresolved sadness when we're not processing the loss, which is very unhealthy. My practice also talks about how when that isn't addressed eventually that mental strain and uncomfortability becomes so much that we turn to something else to distract ourselves: cigarettes, drinking, sex, overworking, technology, Instagram all giving us a quick fix. All of that is really part of this bigger idea of consumption— that we have to have something to fill that void. I see it as a spiritual void because I see our connection to the planet as a spiritual connection. The consumption inherently drives the collapse that we are witnessing and not mourning so there's this circular aspect to it. The way that I see us breaking that cycle is the biophilic connection. What is enough to take? What is enough to keep and what can we give back? This reciprocal relationship with the environment and the larger systems on the planet is a reverent one. In my work, I look at it from all different perspectives. I can only look so long at the melancholia and the collective social mania because it's kind of always running in the background. Lately I've been really trying to shift my focus to the healing aspects of it, like the beauty, the evolutionary processes, the science. I’m looking at things that connect people to the spiritual aspect, and what follows is the call to action to help and do the right thing.
ER: How have you been connecting with nature lately?
RR: Sad to say, but I really haven't been as much as I have wanted to, as much as I used to in the past. So my connection in nature has kind of been in my studio. I'm still going for walks and I'm very excited for the gardening season. So there's that and then I go home to visit my mom and my childhood forest, where I grew up. I've also been producing the smell of rain in my studio, so I’ve been tinkering with the different smells to create this memory that we all share. Did you know the smell of rain is 450 million years old? It comes from a little bacteria called Streptomyces — the same bacteria that's responsible for antibiotics all over the world, but it also produces Geosmin, which is the chemical signature of rain to attract these little tiny arthropods. Amazing.
ER: Where are you finding hope?
RR: I'm finding hope in the youth and it seems to me in the past few years we're hitting a tipping point where people are unable to deny these super storms, the droughts, the freezes. Every month in some part of the world a place is being hit by some manifestation of climate change and the youth is leading the charge. I think the adults are being supportive in science and thank God Biden is in office. I'm finding hope in other countries like I'm an art advisor to the Center for Local Prosperity in Nova Scotia. They're developing and small but they're analyzing and working with the community and trying to figure out a map forward that's focused on localized governments making changes. They are this great role model — there's all of these little tiny pockets around the globe that are trying to find solutions and share information. I feel like the tide is shifting. Even Amazon, DHL and UPS are investing in electric vehicles for local deliveries. There's a shift in technology, where companies are looking more towards bio design for answers.
ER: What is next for you and your art?
RR: My next project is recreating rain smell. So I'm trying to figure out what proportions to mix, so it doesn't overpower the Geosmin. We can pick up on one molecule per trillion (one part per trillion) with this smell. Then I'm going to vaporize it into a gallery room. Alongside an older resin work, Omega, I’m working with moss. I tried to grow my own moss but it's really hard in this Colorado climate. It just takes too much moisture and it would take too much energy and too much water so I'm working with preserved moss instead. I'm going to find ways to attach it to different parts of the sculpture and then I'm going to source a bunch of orchids and have them growing all over the sculpture with my film playing on one of the gallery walls. On the other side I'm going to have my letter project, where people can take in the installation and then write down their feelings about where they're at with the environment in a written format. My original sculpture Omega was so apocalyptic and dark but I needed to make it. Now I look at things differently. I don't know how to say this, but I hope we (humans) make it. We're in the anthropocene which means it's a new era, and with every new era, some species are eliminated. Orchids are leftover from the dinosaurs, they survived so any species of orchid that you see, is one descendant of the survivors of 65 million years ago. In a way, I’m posing the question of: Are we going to make it? I don't have that team fighting spirit in me. It's more of a curiosity. I see the enormity of the problem, and I see solutions, and I see idiots and I'm like… okay. I don't want to sound like I'm coming from, not a place of hope, but I don't think it's good to be ideological because I feel like that kind of denies reality. But I don't think it's helpful to be stuck in this mental space of feeling like we're completely doomed. That keeps people from taking any action, so I guess, where I try to position myself now is having a sense of curiosity. Ultimately species like Streptomyces are going to make it. They're very smart, very humble and resourceful so are we going to learn from this kind of thing or are we going to continue to be this arrogant pompous species that thinks that we're better than this moss, you know. If Streptomyces can make it 450 million years on a planet that's 4.7 billion years old — life has been around for 3.8 billion years — so a quarter of the time that life's been around this bacteria has been around. This should be our teacher.