Rachel Schragis is an artist and organizer living in Brooklyn. Her latest piece, Confronting the Climate: A Flowchart of the People’s Climate March, is based on her experience as arts coordinator of the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York—a role that gave her a bird’s-eye-view of many different facets of the the current movement to fight climate change, as well as experience with the on-the-ground hurdles of story-based organizing.
Rachel and I became friends during the process of organizing for the PCM, and last weekend we sat down to talk about her latest piece, the movement, and so much more.
Patrick Robbins: You began this piece following your experience as arts coordinator for the People’s Climate March. What was that like?
Rachel Schragis: Based on earlier climate-related projects I had done as an artist, I was invited into planning conversations early on, with the thought that I would end up painting banners or something. As the plans for the PCM grew, it became clear to me that we needed an army of artists, and that the most helpful thing I could do as a cultural worker was to help create the conditions needed for creative activity to thrive as part of this moment.
We also realized that if we wanted to say something more nuanced than “a lot of people care about this issue,” we needed to use some storytelling tools to divide up that message. My colleague Gan Golan had the idea to physically divide up the contingents so that each one told the story of who is present. What we were saying with this march was, this is who the climate movement is, and it’s more than just environmentalists.
We worked with organizers intensively for months to come up with a story that would hold all the dynamics of who needed to be seen, who would march together, how the people who marched could best tell the story of the many, many other people who were not physically present. Concurrently, we worked with artists across NYC to develop community arts projects that helped each segment of the march deliver their message on their own terms. This piece is the story of both that narrative and that process.
PR: So then, how did you end up making this image after the march?
RS: During the march planning, people who knew my past work as an illustrator said, “Wow Rachel, you’re not going to make a flowchart for this?” And I was like, I am making a flow chart, just in my head! Then, after the PCM ended, I saw a hole in how we were communicating about what happened. As an artist whose work is to communicate complexity, as well as a coordinator who held a real range of relationships and synthesized people’s different ideas, I realized that I was in a position to make an object that could address this need.
In order to make this image, I invited many organizers to meet with me, and to engage them so that they felt comfortable answering the question, “how did the People’s Climate March make you feel?” People didn’t think that was a relevant or important question – in some cases especially the people who were closest to the work. Organizing for the PCM was enormously complicated, and we were engaged in this really logistical way that did not account for our emotions. So for this image I went through the back door and framed it as research, so that the organizers themselves would take that question seriously.
PR: Your work involves naming contradiction. In this piece, you make these amazing Venn Diagrams and hang them literally in the air over a representation of the PCM. Which contradictions did you find yourself returning to again and again?
RS: In many ways, the beginning of this project was the the opposition between it’s too late to do anything about climate change / it’s not too late to do anything about climate change. These are both totally true, and they are exactly opposite. Another tension I think about is how complicated the concept of “everyone” is. For example: every voice counts in this crisis, but the wisdom of frontline impacted communities needs to be lifted up. Or: we are all in this together, but also, some people are our enemies and are working to make this crisis worse. These complexities raise the question of, how do you communicate in a way that elevates everyone’s common humanity but also recognize that there are people structurally positioned as perpetrators and some as victims? How do you hold empathy for all, but redistribute power disproportionately and hold the wrongdoers accountable?
The People’s Climate March was an enormous experiment in reckoning with the uneven terrain of identity politics—asking “who is the climate movement?” and then trying to make sense of the many ways that people organize themselves in today’s world.
And when you’re talking about an incongruity in the ways that people organize themselves, you’re actually talking about white supremacy. I think it is no accident that when you have groups that self-identify largely about personal decisions, or hobbies, or visions for the future, then these are disproportionately white people and people with class and/or educational privilege. By contrast, the organizing for the PCM done by communities of color was largely around who their families are, around their ancestry, their work, their land. Our society does not ask white people to represent something larger than their own agency. There is real power in the liberty to self-identify in this way, it’s a privilege all of us deserve—and simultaneously, it represents a loss of rootedness, coping skills, and ritual, things you need to survive the climate crisis.
For this and many other reasons, through the PCM, it became increasingly clear to me that white supremacy is the primary obstacle to addressing the climate crisis.
PR: Your work is both complicated and about the idea of complexity, which means you are working at a tremendous scale and things can take a long time to make.
RS: It’s true—I wish I could have made this piece in just a few months, it would have been so useful right away. But my studio art practice has taught me that it takes a long time for ideas to gel, and that we have to be patient. This is not a piece of wisdom that is easy to hold onto in our digital era.
In my practice as an artist, I’ve learned that you need to spend a tremendous amount of time doing the work to know the work you need to make. In my case, I’ve learned that every four years I need to lock myself in a room. If once every five to ten years I make something I am wildly proud of, that will be a good life.
PR: Seeing you working in your studio when I would visit you, alone with all your post it notes in this room in the dead of winter, is like witnessing a durational piece.
RS: It is a durational piece. Over the duration of many lifetimes. I’m glad you brought up post-it notes. Do you want to ask me a question about post it notes?
PR: (Laughs) Okay. Um, how many post it notes were involved in this piece?
RS: Thousands! Thousands of post it notes.
This image started as a collage, black and white, in an attempt to lift up the historical nature of the moment—black and white images of people marching indexes to the sixties, visually, which I like, insofar as it conveys that this is a historical moment. But I also wanted it to be very clear that this is not nostalgic or static. So what is the aesthetic that bridges that gap?
To answer this question, I asked myself, what does the work actually look like when you walk in an organizing space? And I was like, oh, of course, it’s a bunch of post it notes with sharpie on them. Post it notes are a signifier of people’s actual life. The questions are on masking tape for the same reason, communicating the everyday and ephemerality. And I used the material of the post-its and the masking tape to make the signs in the image. Because it bridges that divide between the internal process of figuring it out and the external performance of having it all figured out.
PR: Maybe that’s why I feel such relief when I see your work. So much of the work we do as organizers is simplifying things to be effective, so it’s so reassuring to see the complexity of the situation accurately represented.
RS: We have to learn to live among contradictions, as a movement. This piece is designed to be an offering of that framework. In most organizing, the goal is to have a five- or six-word slogan that communicates your message. The thing that makes us focus on the six-word slogan is an underlying belief that people cannot hold complexity. However, I think people really react to complexity. Ultimately you want people to make that deep, lifelong commitment, and for that to happen, they have to see that complexity and spend time with it. And that’s what this does. Both the work and my work demands a lot of time. And there’s a lot of audacity in that.
PR: Your work takes up a lot of space!
RS: It does! And I take up a lot of space! I wear bright colors, I have a lot of ideas, and a lot of feelings. I’m not a physically small body, either. And for all these reasons, I will tell you that my stomach was in knots as I prepared to launch this piece—because how can I ever know that it isn’t crowding out other people, other leaders, other ideas? I can only know that I think it’s a valuable offering and trust that I can share it with integrity.
I think that the role artists play in society uniquely situates us to model what it looks like to be unapologetic about one’s self, and simultaneously to be accountable to others. And I really believe that understanding how to embody that, how each of us can have humility and also be rooted in our own enormous power, is part of what it looks like to be prepared for the increasingly unstable future of our planet. This piece does not say “to solve this problem I need you to sign this petition,” it says, “I need you to wrestle with this hard stuff with me for the rest of your life.” It’s a big and necessary ask: it should take up a lot of space.
All photos courtesy Rachel Schragis. Visit the Kickstarter page for Confronting the Climate: A Flowchart of the People’s Climate March here.