"Public Works" on display

On a recent trip to Chicago, I caught the final day of the Public Works exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. This was right up my alley, I love looking at the landscape and what humans do to it. In most cases, “progress” on the landscape involves a typical set of development behaviors; cut down the trees, grade the land, put in drainage, etc. These behaviors are so deeply ingrained into the default construction code that trying to do something different requires too much thought. When we see the cranes and bulldozers, we typically think “progress,” and so we don’t tend to ask too many questions.

Frank Breuer, Untitled, 2004 (1523 Plum Island, MA)

Anyway, the exhibit… among my favorite pictures were two photographs by Daniel Shea that illustrated mountaintop removal mining. Mountaintop removal is exactly what it sounds like: take huge machines and cut the top right off of a mountain to get at coal seams. This has been going on in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky for decades, and it is controversial for the large amount of landscape destruction that it causes, as well as the water pollution and toxic run-off. In some cases, dams that hold back sludge ponds have broken and sent millions of gallons of sludge cascading down through narrow mountain valleys. The process is enormously controversial and the EPA has tried to avoid the issue, seeing it as a political third rail it does not want to touch. The first two photographs appeared in the exhibit (the third was not part of the exhibit). These appear on Daniel Shea’s website.

Several photographs highlighted the extremely industrial nature of Chicago’s south side and Northwestern Indiana (Hammond and Gary). These industrial expanses rival the stretch of refineries that dot the Jersey Turnpike near the Newark Airport. The US Steel works at Gary, which reads like over one hundred years of industrialism. Countless train yards and industrial lift bridges haven’t changed much. The efficiency of the train moving through these areas is unimpressive. Amtrak shares the lines with the numerous freight trains that rumble through, so it’s naturally filled with traffic jams. Why the passenger lines have not been prioritized says something about the car-centric nature of Chicagoland.

Another photograph showed a landscape that was covered with windmills, easily 500 or more. This illustrated for me the way that humans think about a new technology. When it is new, and claims to alleviate all that ails us, we’re quite content to populate the landscape with it. We turn a blind eye to its blight. What remains constant is our need to consume electricity, no matter how it is generated. That is a given, a foregone conclusion. How it is created is up for debate. Given the choice between wind and coal, I’m a great advocate for wind. But it’s still amazing to see our desire for electricity, and what it can do to a landscape. Power consumption rarely looks pretty.

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