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Petrochemical America: From Cancer Alley to Toxic Valley

Environmentally Anxious Art at SPACE Gallery

By Bea Spolidoro, AIA Posted on October 2, 2017

Farm Flare near Butler county from Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

”Great nations, write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art”, said J. Ruskin (St. Mark’s rest; the history of Venice. (1877). The exhibition PETROCHEMICAL AMERICA: From Cancer Alley to Toxic Valley, currently at SPACE Gallery until October 7, is an exquisite example of how to touch on all the three manuscripts in one show, while leaving for us to decide whether the nation is getting greater or not.

Curator Sophie Riedel walked me through the exhibition, showing how Louisiana’s natural geography has been radically repurposed into a vast network for extracting and storing. One wall at the exhibit relays the history of environmental injustice in Morrisonville, LA, a town created by and for freed slaves. The relationship between income, race, and environmental pollution is recognized widely as a growing concern not only in Louisiana and has its own designation within the EPA, recognized as Environmental Justice Areas. Alongside maps of displacement in Louisiana, are photographs documenting the choice we are making between jobs and health in Southwest Pennsylvania.

The curator, Sophie Riedel gives voice to many artists and activists drawing on the parallels between “Cancer Alley,” a stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and the changing identity of the Ohio River Valley. Shell will open a new ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, 30 miles upwind of Pittsburgh, that will emit more Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) than the remaining coke processing plants along the Monongahela River.

Many artists and photographers involved with the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project are showcased at SPACE, with their testimonies from sharing space with the upstream feedstock of this type of petrochemical facility. A photograph by Nina Berman, 2011 shows a family lighting their tap water fire, at their kitchen sink.

The exhibition is also full of art, beautiful yet disturbing for its message: big infographics, taken from the book “Petrochemical America” by Richard Misrach and Kate Orff (New York: Aperture, 2012) are hanging on the walls. They showcase attractive collages of natural elements and follow elegant timelines with detailed environmental data showing how we have evolved.

Beyond the role of arts in shifting public discourse, art during our zeitgeist suffers from a condition known as “Environmentally Anxious Art.” Sophie considers it the unavoidable response to how we internalize the environmental challenges, particularly those of the last decade. These challenges are already affecting the lives of many people. When asked if art can save the world, Riedel responds, “Absolutely.”

My favorite installation in the gallery is a touch screen map of the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment Toxic Release Inventory created by Gabriel O’Donnel at the CREATE Lab, a robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon University. It is possible to see the data of polluters, releasing toxic chemicals and carcinogens from industrial sources across the US. By pinching and zooming, the Pittsburgh area appears covered by a plume; the view of Cancer Alley along the Mississippi will break your heart.

A video room also plays documentaries on the topic, and there is a calendar of nights to see specifically one at the time.

On October 7, the closing reception will offer an opportunity to meet Gena Wirth of SCAPE Studio, a New York-based landscape firm fostering regenerative design and sustainable practices. SCAPE Studio’s model for practice advocates for architects and designers to play an important role in communicating environmental problems to the community, overcoming misconceptions people might have. This exhibition is a solid example of how to reach out to the public, with high-quality materials and thoughtful displays.

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