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J. Henry Fair’s Environmentalist Photography: A Pre-Apocalyptic Exhibit?

Photographer J. Henry Fair’s new exhibit, Landscapes of Extraction: The Collateral Damage of the Fossil Fuels Industries at the second floor gallery at Cooper Union is as important as it is surreal. And is it ever surreal. Esthetically, Fair goes for vividly colorful landscape shots of future Superfund sites: that is, if there is any Superfund left to clean up the decapitated mountaintops, lakesize cesspools of lethal sludge, and seemingly innocuous construction sites he shoots from a distance. Fair’s photos are accompanied by a series of multimedia stations and a grimly informative running text detailing the processes he documents: deep sea drilling, mountaintop clearcutting, messy metal refining and chemical manufacturing. And those matter-of-factly calm if predictably messy construction sites are actually hydrofracked natural gas wells.

“Fracking,” in the gas business is slang for “fracture,” a necessity when drilling through shale deposits to unleash the lucrative gas beneath. Hydrofracking began in the 70s, originally a process where high-pressure water was used to break up the rock. These days, courtesy of what’s commonly known as the “Halliburton loophole,” pushed through by the Bush regime in 2005, natural gas companies are allowed to use whatever liquid they want, no matter how caustic or lethal it might be. Furthermore, the law exempts the drilling companies from having to reveal the contents of their lethal concoctions on the grounds that they’re “trade secrets.” As Fair documents, what’s no secret is that highly toxic amounts of radium have turned up in groundwater running into the water table from these sites recently (ostensibly, there’s supposed to be a buffer zone around each well, although a particularly eerie aerial photo shows a portion of Garfield County, Colorado with wells side by side – from above, the effect is that of a graveyard). And while radium is silently lethal, there’s no ignoring the water in your kitchen sink catching fire, vividly described in Josh Fox’s documentary film Gasland. Gas leases are lucrative: it’s not hard to imagine the residents of a neighborhood or town hit hard by the depression signing up for them en masse, only to discover their property polluted to the point of being unhabitable, never mind unsaleable. Is the current process of hydrofracking the teens equivalent of what munitions manufacturing became in the 90s, a convenient way to dispose of nuclear waste? Fair’s investigation doesn’t carry that far.

He also takes a sobering look at mountaintop clearcutting (a cause famously taken up by activist/gospel bandleader Reverend Billy), where coal companies like Massey Energy basically blast the top off mountains in Appalachia, raining down all sorts of debris, some more toxic than others, on the community below. Ultimately, Fair emphasizes, what’s happened since the invention of the steam engine is that millions of years worth of carbon have been re-released into the environment in the last 250 years, a blink of an eye and the equivalent of an explosion in evolutionary terms. The potentially apocalyptic environmental crises we face today, from global warming, to oil spills, to the highly contested effects of hydrofracking, are the blowback from that explosion. The exhibit is a must-see; it’s up through February 26 at Cooper Union (enter through the back entrance at the main building on the triangle between Bowery and Fourth Avenue at Seventh Street). Hours are Monday-Friday, 12-7 PM, Saturday 12-5 PM.

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January 21, 2011 - Posted by | Art, photography, Politics, Public Health | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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