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Bound together

Tali Weinberg’s tapestry of climate change

Tali Weinberg’s new show Beyond Measure is on display through Nov. 23 at the Tulsa Artist Fellow’s Lewis Project Space.

Destiny Jade Green

From one angle, a rolling prairie of green and gold grass reaches for rust-colored hills on the horizon. A few steps later, it becomes a winding river snaking across the red clay floor—or maybe what you took for a river is actually a road.

There’s no wrong answer here. “Bound (i.5),” the huge installation at the center of artist Tali Weinberg’s new show Beyond Measure, on display through Nov. 23 at the Tulsa Artist Fellow’s Lewis Project Space, welcomes a variety of interpretations. “I like that everyone sees something different in it,” Weinberg said.

The sculpture, displayed on a 6x10 foot platform, is made up of 300 individual lengths of petrochemical-derived medical tubing, each of which is wrapped with organic thread to express the changes in annual average temperature for different places on the planet. Other pieces in the show, which Weinberg calls “woven datascapes,” similarly translate climate change data into abstract tapestries that both invite and resist meaning.

Connecting scientific data sets and woven tapestries was natural for Weinberg. As the daughter of a mathematician, part of what drew her to weaving was its mathematical elements. “It’s an interesting set of puzzles,” she said. “Plus, it connected to the advocacy work I was doing at the time.” After graduating from New York University with a degree in Peace Studies and International Development, Weinberg worked for grassroots human rights organizations, where she met women from some of the most marginalized populations in the world. “I was interested in the history of labor, both in the exploitation of labor and resistance to that exploitation, and I found that weaving is at the center of a lot of those narratives, particularly in women-led resistance narratives.”

Some of her early weaving projects grew directly out of her human rights work. “I was doing work where the weaving was metaphorical, where I was taking language from conversations I was having with women activists and using those texts as thread to create woven structures, and thinking about the social fabric—structures and systems and the possibilities within constraints.”

The human rights work is also what led Weinberg to focus on climate change. “I always cared about the environment, but what actually got me to start working with it directly was learning how much climate change was affecting all the other areas of social justice that I cared about. Everything else is bound up in it.”

When she began working with climate change data five years ago, the work felt important, but not exactly personal. “I was thinking about the California drought in terms of social justice, how it impacted women and families in marginalized communities outside my comfortable neighborhood in Berkeley.” But she quickly discovered there was something about the physical process of weaving the data, of throwing the shuttle back and forth, building up the data line by line, that made it feel much more personal to her.

As she researched the history and mythology around weaving, Weinberg repeatedly encountered stories in which women used weaving as a form of resistance, subversion and communication. Some of the oldest stories include Penelope in The Odyssey, who weaves a tapestry by day and unweaves it at night in order to resist the men attempting to claim her, or Philomela in The Metamorphoses, who sends her sister a tapestry which tells the story of how she was raped and rendered unable to speak.

In both examples, the weaving functions both as a means of communication, but also as a form of conveying emotion. “Penelope’s weaving and unweaving isn’t just record keeping; it’s also a form of grieving,” Weinberg said. “That’s what weaving is to me. It’s relational. It’s a kind of knowledge that, in having all these intimate connotations, is gendered female.”

The idea of weaving as a form of resistance became painfully relevant after the 2016 election, when it became clear that the Trump administration planned to disappear the very climate data Weinberg had been working with for years. “All of a sudden I was aware that the data was vulnerable, that the knowledge itself was something the people in power wanted to erase, and the idea of weaving as a kind of subversive feminist archive became very real to me.”

At the beginning of 2017, when many of the scientists and activists she knew were frantically archiving data sets before they could be deleted by the administration, Weinberg decided to do her part by copying the NOAA database she’d been working with. As she sifted through it, she thought about how the information itself was a kind of narrative. “Even though we tend to think of it as being completely objective, every data visualization represents a set of formal decisions that somebody’s made in order to tell a story.”

In some ways, this idea of narrative lies at the heart of Weinberg’s climate change project. The crisis isn’t a matter of data or science, though there are some people who still deny that it exists. “The real crisis is one of affect, or of communication. We use data visualization in order to quickly and efficiently explain something complicated, but how much gets stripped away in order to achieve that efficiency? How much of the lived human experience?” For Weinberg, this is part of the artist’s job: to seek out what has been discarded or obscured in other narratives and remind us of the human experiences that might otherwise be forgotten or ignored.

“One of the things that gives meaning to this body of work in particular is the way in which textiles are these intimate things,” she said. “We encounter fiber on our bodies and in our homes, and that becomes part of what people read in the work.”

Compared to other art forms, textiles are vulnerable and difficult to preserve, as fragile and susceptible to the elements as the human body itself. “I think about that kind of intimacy as I work,” Weinberg said. “It feels like a way that big issues of injustice can be experienced in this very close, very intimate way. I’m trying to weave formal scientific record keeping with lived experience.”

Though her artwork begins with data sets, Weinberg stresses that it is not a direct representation of that data. “There’s always somebody who wants to be able to read the chart,” she said. “But these aren’t data visualizations, even though they’re made up of data. For me, it’s more about a feeling of what we’re experiencing and what we’re losing. It’s about love.”