Cristian Pietrapiana is tired of excuses

Cristian Pietrapiana is losing patience.

You can tell from the work. Around the Plaxall Gallery on 46th Avenue in Long Island City hang pages of newspapers furiously scrolled on with paint, pastel and pen. Feverish lines encircle headlines and rippled down and across columns of newsprint. In one, a stock market chart on the front page of The New York Times’ Business Day is whited over, its trendline replaced by a traced measurement of surging carbon dioxide parts per million. The headline, once sober trading advice, takes on new meaning: “Everybody Take A Breath.”

Pietrapiana is fixated on climate change denial. It seems to baffle him. A former New York City public school teacher, the challenge of prying open eyes shut willfully seems irresistible. An immigrant who grew up under fascist rule in Argentina, the impulse to do so seems urgent.

We met last summer, when he last showed a series of his works as an exhibition titled “Fever” in the same storage space turned gallery near the East River. Until Monday, he’s showing his latest one, titled “Inexcusable.” The names capture the astronomical shifts in climate politics over the past 12 months. The emergence of the Green New Deal, Greta Thunberg and the election of climate realists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to Congress signaled a change Pietrapiana welcomes. And yet, in Brazil, the country overseeing the world’s most vital carbon sink, we’ve seen the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right wannabe industrialist with bold deforestation plans for the Amazon. And for all the talk of radical climate action, we have yet to even rein in the plastic pollution.

We caught up over coffee last month. I edited and condensed the following, and did so hastily so I could get this out while there’s still time to drop by the gallery and see it:  

ACK: Is there something deeper in using newspaper print as a medium?

CP: It’s part of the concept. News is going to become old news. And your point of view of yesterday changed from today. By going back to the news, it makes you think. It makes you go deeper into it.

What is lost in helping people to understand something like climate change when you have a generation of people who have grown up reading articles online, if at all? Perhaps they’re only used to reading tweets or Facebook posts.

This, in a way, will invite them to go deeper into the issue, instead of a paragraph, or three or four lines. I know this is dying, so in a way I’m trying to say, “Look at this.” It’s not that I’m against technology.

Does it almost feel like there’s this literacy that’s been lost to us as citizens and as people that perhaps we once had when reading newspaper was the primary vehicle for consuming political information? That now in this age where there’s so much media and so much distraction that it facilitates the willful ignorance that goes into climate denial and climate inaction?

I hate to sound like an old fart, but humbly, yes. I don’t read the news on the phone. I wear glasses, and there’s the light [from the device]. Everything is more immediate. Everything is so instant coffee. Quick, give me the highlights, and let’s move on. There’s no depth.

I think it’s about taking in perspective. And I think physically this [points to phone] doesn’t give you perspective because it’s right here.

Talk a little about your background in teaching and how that lent itself to both taking on this topic from an artistic perspective and using this medium as a means through which to express that.

I taught New York City public high school for 25 years. Social studies. At the beginning I was part of an amazing program. Then there was no funding for it because it was a federal program. It was social studies through art, which was right up my alley. So I always incorporated art and history and I probably have, still in some box, from the ‘90s, handouts that I would make off curriculum about overpopulation, about mass consumption. It was that in my family. These are things that were always in my head. I was always very aware of nature and the environment. We used this, not from a stingy point of view but from a point of view of why waste more resources. That was always present in my teaching.

You said from a family point of view -- what was it about your family that made those things so?

My mother was a teacher as well. Her father was a painter and yogi, which was pretty much unheard of at the time. He was a vegetarian, and I spent many years with him. He instilled in me a respect for nature.

I go crazy in New York after Christmas, when they throw away the trees. I know it’s a custom, I respect that. But why the need of cutting down a tree? I know they have farms, and I know they have to be cut down, they go that route. But why do you have to throw it out so quickly? It’s the 26th and the trees are sticking out of the trash. Why not hold onto them a little longer? It has to do with this throwaway culture.

When did climate change become such a central focus and was there an epiphany moment?

It was a book. The epiphany was when a dear friend of mine gave me The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I get Mother Jones, I’ve had it for years. I was reading articles. But that book brought me back to my grandfather. Things he’d say when I was 10 years old. He’d say, “It’s limited. There’s not enough gold in the world for everyone. There’s a point where you can’t extract anymore.” That’s what kicked it off i think. So I started reading articles about it. Now I’m with [Elizabeth Kolbert’s] The Sixth Extinction. And your newsletter, of course. How do you say that word in the name? Anthropo--

Anthropogenic. But I changed the name.

It’s hard to say. But, then, I’m E.S.L.

Yeah, it was, uh, a mouthful. A dumb name.

This one is better.

When you’re thinking of climate change and the limitations of nature and when overpopulation becomes a key metric by which you’re judging it, how do you maintain humanistic values? There are the environmental hardliners who say the preservation of nature should be for nature’s sake and not for humanity, but that raises questions about the degree to which you sanction human suffering.

I paint, and I take out the garbage and I walk the dog. I’m not a specialist on this. But at least it would be interesting to have a conversation about it. Especially in government. I hear what you’re saying. Should we be extreme about it? And preserve nature in lieu of --

Let me frame it this way. You are seeing this rise of an eco-right. The shooter in New Zealand -- while I don’t want to quote his manifesto as a serious expression of environmental concern, it discussed climate change and migration caused by that as a factor motivating his violence. Given that you lived under a fascist government for a period of your life, how concerned are you that when we finally move beyond the point where climate denialism is tolerated that we keep extreme environmental stresses from being used to justify the oppression of vulnerable people?

There will have to be a dialog. I hear what you’re saying, but I think everything starts with a grain of sand. What do I do? What do you do? What are we doing about it? I would be more interested in focusing the way we consume. That to me is maybe at this point more interesting. That’s the cause of everything. Even, probably, overpopulation. This notion, and I see it every day, and this neighborhood; you see it here, now that people are moving in. It’s more people. These minorities they’re building. You see more garbage. I find that at home every time I take the garbage out, when I was a kid it was a heavy bag of organic, basically, stuff. Now it’s very bulky but it’s very light. It’s all this plastic containers and all that crap.

I might be not answering you question, but it’d be interesting to address how we consume. It’d be interesting to see it more in the media and in TV shows and in this era of reality TV. Everyone wants to be a celebrity. Everyone wants to be a star with a limo and this and that. And there’s not a lot of models out there. So what are the kids looking at? All they want to be is a big celebrity and they have no idea what the price of that is. I see everyone with their Fiji bottle on TV. It’s not even Poland Spring from here. Or the chichi people with the San Pellegrino. It’s Italian. It has to be imported.

If there’s a right wing ecological thing coming down, that’ll be something to address in that moment, when we’re all on board. But that would be a victory if everyone’s discussing that. We’re all at least in the same boat, then. We’re not in the same boat now. I wish there were some extreme guy saying, “No more bottled water, drink it from the stream.” I’d adapt! I don’t mind. The problem is that nobody here wants to give up their lifestyle. And I don’t mean to say it because I’ve been living in this country for many years and I don’t mean to be the foreigner who comes here and criticizes it.

Go ahead.

But they feel entitled! Everything is the jumbo Coca-Cola. And they’re buying all the aquifers in India, with people who don’t even ahead water for farming. It’d be nice to see the regular people and the kids be aware of those things. And I don’t see that in the media. I don’t see why society has to adapt so much and cater you because you don't want to change your lifestyle you’re entitled to.

So is the goal for making art like this, then, to influence enough for a mass of people there is a cultural change? Or to influence potentially that one individual who rises to power to the point where they can change the policy that makes mass change?

That’s the lotto. I welcome everything. I’m not here to influence, that would be too ambitious for me. I’m just doing my artwork and I’m pointing at something and I want people to draw their own conclusions. Ultimately what I want for them when they see this is to think. Everyone has access to the newspaper. To the news. To me, the whole point of art is to make you look at the world from a different point of view to make you thin. Whether you like the aesthetics is a whole different story. This is something that’s turned into quote-unquote art. If you touch one, it’s like teaching. When I used to teach, in the 90s, I had up to 40 kids in a classroom. But if a few bunch, hopefully all  of them, but if some of them follow you, and they make changes, that’s hopeful.

I’m not here to brainwash anybody. I had experience with that. I’m just pointing at something.

What experience did you have with that?

I was a kid, but I remember there was censorship. Certain books they’d give you passages, you wouldn’t have access to the entire book.

Is there anything that stands out to you that when you look back you’re horrified at what was withheld?

It’s hard for me to get horrified.

I had to do military service. People project and we all fantasize about it, ‘Oh how was it’. Well, you adapt. I was 18. You adapt. You’re resilient. They could give you one meal a day and you adapt. You judge later once the events pass, then you get tricked by memory and the story you want to tell. So I want to stay away from that, because I cannot be fidèle, loyal to the facts.

Are you worried that there is going to be that same kind of memory trickery 20 years from now when climate change is much worse and there are people who were standing in the way of any kind of action now, or were feeding into it now, act like they weren’t?

People tend to glamorize their past. It’s part of the human psyche. So I don’t know. But hopefully they’ll take action now so they can tell a true story 20 years from now instead of bullshit.

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