On top of a mountain in West Texas lives the artist Alyce Santoro, best known for inventing sonic fabric, an audible textile woven from recycled audio cassette tape. The creation of sonic fabric — once made into a dress worn and “played” by Jon Fishman of Phish — came from the cash-strapped Santoro’s attempts to scavenge for free art supplies. “It was more about that,” Santoro says, “than save the earth.”Now Santoro’s daily life is wrapped around saving the earth. Her studio is a converted bus outfitted with $500 worth of solar panels that power her computer, scanner, lights and sewing machine. Home is a 14-foot trailer with $10-a-month electric bills. She and her boyfriend collect their water in rain barrels, power their outdoor stove by the sun, and expect to be completely off the grid by the end of the year.
“There are so many things people can do at a personal level to make a difference now,” says Santoro, 41, who recently launched a conservation campaign on Facebook called USE HALF NOW!, a forum for sharing energy and resource-saving tips. Santoro hopes to get at least 5,000 people to vow to halve their average resource use by Earth Day, April 22. “It’s like everybody’s going around, trying to raise awareness, talking about things you can buy to make your life greener,” she says. “But it’s really the opposite. Now is when you need to learn how to conserve. We don’t have time to wait.”
A former city dweller — she lived in Providence, Rhode Island for 12 years followed by 5 years in Brooklyn — Santoro and her boyfriend, a guitarist/composer named Julian, 40, moved in 2006 to the mountaintop outside of Marfa, a small desert haven that draws artists from both coasts. “I could have more space and more time to do experiments into sustainable living,” says Santoro, “and I would have more time to make art.” (Click here to see some of her conservation-minded creations.)
“I felt like my time in New York was just going into ways to make money to live,” she continues, “whereas here, I can live on a lot less.”
The couple lives frugally on family owned land, so there’s no rent or mortgage to worry about. They grow most of their own vegetables, watering them with runoff from dish washing. Instead of buying a refrigerator, the pair found an old chest freezer next to a dumpster, installed a new thermostat, and created an energy-efficient fridge. That innovation cut their electric bill to a remarkable one-tenth of what is was before. “Of course it’s inconvenient,” she says of her dumpster-find innovation, “but if you are willing to reduce your usage, you can do simple things that cost almost nothing.”
Next: 10 Simple Tips
Do This Now
What, I ask Santoro, are 10 simple things our Tonic readers can do now? All, she admits, are things we’ve heard before but just don’t always do:
- Unplug appliances/power strips when not in use.
- Reach for the broom before the vacuum.
- Instead of turning on the AC, open a window when there is a breeze.
- Compost kitchen scraps, either in the backyard or in a worm box if you’re in an apartment.
- Walk, bicycle, use public transport when possible. When running errands in your car, consolidate trips.
- Reuse your plastic grocery sacks, or use cloth ones.
- Air-dry clothes when possible, indoors or out. Hang the heavy items like jeans and towels if you’re pressed for space.
- Shop used: Check out thrift stores first for good used household items, clothes, toys, etc.
- Reuse your paper coffee cup/water bottle a couple of times before throwing it away — or better yet, use glass or ceramic.
- Use both sides of paper for multi-page printing.
Other tips, in addition to her Facebook campaign, can be found at Santoro’s blog, The Obvious Observer.
Since Santoro and Julian live 25 miles from the nearest town, they need a satellite Internet connection — their highest bill at $80 a month. It is their only extravagance. “I have pieces in shows all over the world, and I can conduct my entire career as if I was living in Brooklyn,” Santoro says. “We’re just living a very simple life and it’s very rewarding.”