Who watches the opacity? Art & activism in the shadow of big industry

I thought I was alone these last couple of years watching in awe the monstrous, billowing, sky creatures of Hamilton’s industrial sector.

069 Collage

Oh, I know Hamilton is and has long been an area of fascination for artists both casual and professional. Most of what I’ve seen (and much of my own work) is based on the ground up i.e structures and landscapes. But just above that is another landscape entirely – and I’ve been referring to the airspace above the industrial sector as “landscape” because what is going on up there is far too solid and far too much a permanent fixture to be called anything else.

I look for the flames when I cross into Hamilton from work, and I’ll always glance to the air above the architecture to see what is billowing where … and just marvel at how large and, literally, “opaque” these are. Night and day, though wind and rain, I would explore vantage points and study these shapes. I started to take pictures, then time lapse pictures, then movies, then collages… and now, thousands of photos later my first exhibit with this series of work opens tomorrow at 173 James Street North. Both formal and a flight of fancy influenced by a healthy dose of local activism and politics, I started to anthropomorphise the emissions as kind of creatures of mythology. (Is “anthropomorphise” the right word? I’m not sure as technically I am ascribing qualities of non-humans, greek gods, to non-human emissions… )

The relationship, for me, drew similarities to what I assume living among titans and gods would of been like. Huge and obvious, dominating and affecting the landscape yet uncaring and oblivious to gnats like me frittering away at the edges. Sure, I can indirectly communicate with the people operating this machinery, but that is also a claim of priests and oracles at any temple. There are always prophecies of doom and of hope flying about in classical mythology, as there are in Hamilton council and on the local chorus – twitter. I could go on, but that’s basically how my mind always keeps connecting things on me and then I tend to go “deep into the rabbit hole” with work and research. And that’s how I arrived at this collection of digital prints, my first solo exhibit in many years. It’s called “Uranus of Hamilton” – and yes, I know. The name has a few different stories to it, though it is the correct name as this 7 work exhibit refers to the creation mythology of Ancient Greece.

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Anyways, so I thought I was alone out there watching for industrial emissions because of their visual qualities. But I was not alone – here’s a recent CBC Hamilton news article about Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton, who was out there around the same period “documenting and photographing the emissions for months”.  I didn’t know there were laws on the opacity of industrial emissions, and it’s neat to think that what I saw as formally fascinating yet rationally horrifying was kinda validated by this unfolding environmental story.

I am very impressed with Lukasik and local residents for their work on this, and very grateful. It’s a real effort, I think, to break out of our accustomed blind-spots that build up over time and prevent us from seeing some of the absurdity right in front of our eyes. These titans of industry are no slouches – they know what they are doing and they know how to minimize the perception of their presence. For example, I can’t get anywhere inside the industrial sector – I once got in trouble by three security guards for standing on patch of corporate lawn to take a picture of a statue. Public parking is also non-existent in that area and they spend a lot of time and money doing marketing and PR based on charities and the arts.

As thick and opaque as Dafasco’s industrial emissions, this kind of practice shields their activities from most citizens by associating what we are seeing with warm and fuzzy feelings about community and jobs and things like that. Adding insult to injury is the fact that they are spending millions on marketing while receiving millions to keep the plants open. They are also not spending the millions government is spending to clean up toxic areas such as Randal’s Reef.

This asymmetrical scale of priorities and responsibilities is a neat trick of smoke and mirrors. I learned it takes full time dedication from patient and perceptive locals to see through it and be able to change the titan’s behaviour. I, on the other hand, was only observing the titan behaviour.

Some more work from that series is in this post, but not of the works in the exhibit though. You’ll have to show up sometime with April 12th to May 6th to see those.


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Bonus: I’ve included a sort of “hidden” work in the gallery that is based on the below raw footage of Tartarus.

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