By: Alex Nates-Perez
I walked into the air-conditioned building into the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Chicago’s Columbia College (MoCP) and felt I had entered an environmental sanctuary. Not only was I sheltered from the muggy 90-degree July day, I was also met with a refreshing example of art as activism. It was July 21st, the opening of a new exhibit called Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy.
Tracing Dirty Energy is an effort by MoCP partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southeast Environmental Task Force to amplify the voices of activists on the Southeast Side of Chicago who are doing battle with a local oil refinery. The art in Tracing Dirty Energy is a direct response to the environmental and public health impact of petcoke, a dust-like waste product containing dangerous pollutants. This dust collects in industry districts as well as surrounding neighborhoods, coating homes in a layer of black pollution, which causes serious health issues. In response, the affected communities began protesting the oil companies responsible, educating the community and those outside it of the issues, and demanding reform. They hope to swing legislation to help their suffering community.
The eight artists and collaborative teams showing at Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy give an even louder voice to this degraded community. From photography artfully displaying the ugliness of pollution with emotionally moving aerial shots, to sculpture designed to instill fear in the viewer, this exhibit does serious work educating the public about the dangers of particulate matter. The main floor of the exhibit has photography, interactive maps, sculpture, and a 20-minute short film displayed on three screens. The second floor walls are adorned with portraits of the people in the affected community along with a one-paragraph testimony about living in a heavily polluted neighborhood. This floor makes the science described on the first floor personal, showing the faces of the affected individuals while telling their stories. The third floor has another interactive map on pollution as well as an entire wall dedicated to eerily beautiful photos of oil transportation barges.
Even though the exhibit describes a situation close to home, one instillation brings the danger of mismanaged oil production to the greater Chicago area. On the stairwell leading up to the third floor, there is a large map of the City highlighting the major freight train lines connecting oil refineries around the Chicago area. At certain points along some of these train lines are ominous symbols of mini explosions. They mark points where trains carrying explosive material have blown up while in transit. The carelessness of the oil companies is clearly illustrated through this massive installation. I noted that some of the explosions took place very close to my own Chicago neighborhood.
Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy should not be missed. It is visually exciting, educational, and emotional. The exhibit is elegantly curated by Karen Irvine and organized by Natasha Egan. It closes on October 9th. Make sure not to miss it!
Museum of Contemporary Photography
at Columbia College Chicago
600 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60605
Hours: Monday – Saturday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm; Sunday 12:00 – 5:00 pm
Find more information about the museum and the exhibit here.
Image: Terry Evans, Petcoke piles with sprinklers at KCBX site on Calumet River, 2014