Many of the paintings in the Smoke and Water series (2014 – 2017) depict the surface of water swirling with a slurry of coal ash. Coal ash is a waste byproduct of power plants that generate electricity. When 39,000 tons of this byproduct flowed through eighty miles of the Dan River in North Carolina and Virginia, it created an ecological disaster that became the conceptual, visual, thematic, and political driver of this series. My response was to create a body of work that would evolve beyond paintings to include murals, participatory installations, and performances.
The water’s surface as a painting’s social subject in tandem with community-oriented events became an evolving series of significations. Starting as a mural at Flanders Gallery in Raleigh, the project became a participatory installation at a community center in Wilmington with Working Films, painting installation and performance at North Carolina Museum of Art, a community mural in Monroe, and finally a painting installation at a project space in NYC. Mural participants’ excitement, energy, and empowerment led to new ways of seeing and recognizing one’s position to the ecological event. The sense of enthusiasm and solidarity was uplifting, especially in contrast to the sickness of those impacted by the disaster (and whose voices are represented in the text paintings). These positions—specifically created in these subjects as makers and/or viewers—helped re-inscribe the event and interpellate the participants as “authors” of a repositioned ideology. This also happened through the painted statements, testimony of the impact that coal waste has on community members’ lives and health.
A reimagined signification of ash swirling in water broadly reveals the hegemony of the coal industry and the way that its power serves the pursuit of capital through the dispossession of land, water, clean air, health, property value, and financial stability from surrounding communities.1 The murals underscore an awareness of the relationship between the state’s environmental regulation and Duke Energy. Then Governor Pat McCrory, a former Duke Energy employee for nearly thirty years, placed former colleagues into regulatory positions, transferring the corporate culture of profit and power into the state environmental protection agencies.
As the Smoke and Water project evolved, I became more interested in the larger system of coal electricity—the material sources and means of production, as well as how the geographical sites of electric plants are situated within residential communities in rural areas and how this disproportionately impacts people of color and economic disadvantage. Last summer, I photographed six of the largest coal-fired electric plants in the United States in Texas, Alabama, and Georgia. Since then, I have been translating these digital photographs into the materiality of oil and coal ash in acrylic paint on linen-stretched canvases.
I’m interested in how these paintings’ position of beauty can sensitize and invoke an empathic and meditative space for the viewer to reflect on the moral and political complexities of these sites and issues. The main question I am asking with these new paintings is: how can these networks of projects and positions inform these painted images and signify the deeper underlying structural contradictions of these ecological problems?2 I understand that the use of a painted image with strong aesthetic decisions risks a distraction from this emphasis of these underlying structures. Just as beauty can invoke empathy in the viewer, it also imperils aestheticizing human suffering even if indirectly depicted.
As a counterpoint to the visual language of a painted image, I am exploring screen-printed representations of the bureaucratic language of these companies, using coal as ink and text as a way of constructing a subject-viewer who may experience the oppression and dispossession of the ideology of coal.3 Forcing a confrontation of and identification with these dominant structures of power and policy invites a tension between pleasure and suffering, feeling and intellect, indulgence and criticality.4 Signification becomes a site of struggle for these points of view. How can this method turn the language of the corporation on itself, to expose the contradictions and empty phrases that serve to conceal their underlying priorities of profit? Can the presence of the community be revealed by their absence in this language? This contradiction is further heightened by using the ash as paint, a visually seductive material that itself is the locus of toxicity. Presenting both image and textual works in gallery installations and public murals offers a corrective to the ideology in an America currently divided over the ecological and economic sustainability of coal.
Although I believe that the Smoke and Water project did elevate the visibility of the issue, I can’t say that the results spurred the kind of change that can be easily measured (or that can submit to the same metrics of capitalism). Unbelievably, after admissions of responsibility by Duke Energy culminated in nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act and a roughly $200 million fine in 2015, the utility company is seeking to double their base rate of electricity to consumers—many of whom experienced firsthand the impact of the spill—arguing that charging customers for the cost of the spill is part of the cost of producing electricity.
- Geographer David Harvey discusses extensively the concept of accumulation by dispossession which supports “The escalating depletion of the global environmental commons (land, air, water) and proliferating habitat degradations that preclude anything but capital-intensive modes of agricultural production have likewise resulted from the wholesale commodification of nature in all its forms.” (The New Imperialism (2003)).
- For as Walter Benjamin quotes Brecht in “A Short History of Photography” (1931), a reproduction of reality tells us little about the institutional structures of that reality. That is, as Benjamin goes to conclude, where the caption becomes almost as important as the image.
- Cultural theorist Stuart Hall has been helpful here in thinking about signification and ideology, in which he asks “how is it that subjects recognize themselves in ideology: how is the relationship between individual subjects and the positionalities of a particular ideological discourse is constructed?” to which he responds that unconscious processes in the psychoanalytic sense contribute to this process. (“Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates”,1985)
- A lesson learned from an installation where a signification of the content was confined to a inconspicuous wall label and a modest take-away publication that was removed with little explanation was this was not enough to construct a social critique. The text needed to be further embedded in the visual.
Greg Lindquist is an artist, writer, and professor who teaches at RISD and Pratt Institute, and who is working on a project of paintings, writing, and video exploring the both fascinating and troublesome cultural practice of rolling coal. He recently carried out a collaborative series of Get Out the Vote billboards and banners with Reggie Shuford, a fellow NC native and civil rights lawyer, drawing connections of voter disenfranchisement between a murderous 1898 coup of White Supremacists in Wilmington and the still-current election of 2020. The location of the billboards and banners, New Hanover County, was one of the few in the general election to go blue in a red state.