“We’re expanding the definition of what we mean by art,” Subhankar Banerjee, an art and ecology professor at UNM, as well as the one of the key organizers of “the last oil” symposium, explained to me about the upcoming conference, to be held on the university’s campus from Wednesday, Feb. 21 to Friday, Feb. 23. The gathering brings together artists, activists, writers, whistle-blowers and many more in the first national symposium to address federal offshore energy policies, particularly as they relate to the arctic—though the connections to New Mexico and the broader west are everywhere.
The conference posits that we are in the second oil age—the age of petroleum, our reliance on which has had devastating effect on the natural world; the arctic is the “bellwether” of climate change. There is a very clear context for this—in December oil and gas development was approved on the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and last month a five-year offshore drilling plan was introduced which opens up significant federal water to oil and gas development.
The lands in question are essential for animals and for landscapes, as well as vital for Indigenous communities in the far north. “How do we resist oil?” Banerjee asked. “Multi-species justice is a way to think about all of this—which means bringing environmental conservation into alignment with environmental justice and Indigenous rights.”
Banerjee pointed to the work, Calling All Polar Bears, by multi-disciplinary artist Allison Akootchook Warden as a perfect enunciation of what multi-species solidarity can look like and how artists can “seamlessly breach that gap,” which often remains fraught. “She’s talking about polar bears,” Banerjee said, “but she’s talking about a whole lot more than polar bears.”
In this piece Warden—who is Iñupiaq, from the small island of Kaktovik—transports viewers, through performance, to her home. There, Warden transforms into a polar bear, using music—hip-hop and pop—to explore the experience of the suffering species as the ice melts right out from underneath them. Yet, then she again transforms into other, human characters, all to illumine a place. It is a piece explicating human and non-human experiences with equal parts humor and tremendous sadness. Banerjee notes in his essay, “Why Polar Bears?: Seeing the Arctic Anew” that climate change has largely been precipitated by those with “affluence and power, in which the poor and the marginalized, including Indigenous peoples, have contributed little to climate change so far but will continue to be disproportionately affected by its devastating consequences.” This, he says, makes Warden’s piece part of the “cosmopolitics of Indigenous resistance.” Warden will be speaking on the first night of the symposium, as part of the “multispecies solidarity” panel at 6pm, and will perform afterwards.
Joining the discussion the following day is artist Brian Adams, an Iñupiaq photographer currently residing in Anchorage. Adams—who along with Warden—was recently awarded a Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Fellowship—uses his skill to share Inuit identities with a wide audience, and illustrate how the lives of Indigenous communities in the far north intersect with climate change and cultural preservation. Adams is joined in conversation by Julie Decker, the director of the Anchorage Museum. “It’s not just individually what artists are doing,” Banerjee explained, “but for art to thrive, you need support.” Decker and Adams will participate in a panel at 6pm on Thursday, called “Next North: On art, the North, and climate change,” which will be moderated by Director of the UNM Museum of Art, Arif Khan.
The final day will see The Red Nation organizers connecting what’s happening in the Arctic to what is happening closer to home, and also illustrating what Banerjee meant when he said the conference aims to expand our working definition of what art is. Art—he explained—is creative expression. “Protests like the ones organized by The Red Nation, we look at that as creative expression, as art. [Art] is no longer just something that you paint and get posted on the wall.”
That notion is galvanizing. What Banerjee hopes for is a spark of recognition, a bit of inspiration. “We are living in dispiriting times,” he said. “Something like this could maybe lighten the room a little bit.” Not by way of pleasant distraction, but by providing information and the blueprints on how to make strides in the right direction where these topics are concerned.
Happening in conjunction with the “the last oil” symposium are the final days of Banerjee’s own exhibition at the UNM Museum of Art, Long Environmentalism in the Near North (up until March 3). As is illustrated in his photography and writing in the show, these are landscapes that he feels personally connected to. “Everything I do today,” he said, “and I mean it, everything—as a writer, as an artist, as a scholar, as a teacher, as an activist—everything in one way or another is informed by what took place in the arctic. … My real education did not happen in any university. It happened in those lands.”
For Banerjee however, its less about his experiences, and more about the process of creating connection in this world. “That’s what I tell young people—it’s really about engagement. It’s not about the product you might create, or the art you might be creating, or a piece of writing you might do. It’s just staying engaged with these issues. You don’t know you’re getting into beforehand, but it could fundamentally change who you are.”
“The last oil” symposium is totally free and open to the public. No registration is required. Specific locations, times, parking suggestions and more are online at thelastoil.unm.edu.