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Oct 02, 2022
Imani Jacqueline Brown left her native New Orleans in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When she returned in 2013, she found the logos of oil and gas companies splashed across cultural sites and schools. Her recent hypnotizing art installation asks: When it comes to preserving land and ourselves, is it too late?
– with reporting by Sylwia Serafinowicz
Working from the edge of an environmental disaster, Imani Jacqueline Brown entrances her audience with material that is often not considered a topic for fine art.
Her newest showcase is an installation called “What remains at the ends of the earth?” Currently on display at Berlin’s Academy of Arts (Akademie der Künste), the work uses two curved prints and a circular video projection to depict oil and gas pipelines in Louisiana as a network that resembles a constellation of stars across the night sky. Gazing at this sparkling universe, the viewer experiences a sense of ambivalence: On the one hand, the work reveals overwhelming data pinpointing how a particular stretch of land has been repeatedly selected as the site for toxic industry, thereby affecting the health of residents who are largely African American. On the other hand, the installation is entrancing and visually beautiful.
The same ambivalence arises in watching the accompanying video, which allows viewers to experience what Brown herself saw, through photos and footage of Louisiana wetlands that she captured on foot, by car and even in a canoe and three-passenger airplane.
In an interview with OZY, Brown said that she became aware of the depth and scale of violence gradually over a couple of decades of activism. When she returned to New Orleans in 2013, after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina eight years prior, she was shocked that local arts were now sponsored by oil and gas companies.
In 2018, together withAntenna, a multidisciplinary New Orleans arts organization, she helped launch Fossil Free Fest, which, she says, brought front and center “what it means to be taking funding from the oil industry.” The biannual event attracted a lot of attention, while highlighting the reality that many arts organizations across the city could not take part in a frank conversation about the effects of the oil, gas and petrochemical industries.
Brown took it upon herself to probe the Louisiana Department of National Resources database, where all fossil fuel construction permits in the state were accessible to anyone who could navigate the arcane website. She then pursued her master’s degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, making her way through troves of data and using geographic information system (GIS) software to display what she found.
The stunning result of this research is “What remains at the ends of the earth,” a piece of art that, she says, places corporate logos “back where they belong” — on extraction sites.
The opposite of a sound bite
The focus of Brown’s work is an area along the Mississippi River, stretching about 85 miles from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, that is home to nearly 150 oil refineries and other industrial facilities, such as Formosa Plastics. The prevalence of cancer as well as autoimmune and respiratory conditions among the area’s residents, who are disproportionately African American, earned the region the nickname “Cancer Alley.” In 2019, an analysis published by ProPublica highlighted that, despite high concentrations of toxic chemicals already in the air, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality continued to approve new industrial permits.
It is no accident that Brown, who considers herself an activist as well as an artist and researcher, chose a gallery installation as the format for her exploration of “Cancer Alley.”
“The exhibition encourages people to slow down,” she told OZY. She contrasted this with the more typical ways that media channels publish or broadcast news and information about environmental destruction or racism.
“Political reports operate in the media sphere, and social media sphere,” she explained, noting that those venues require complicated ideas to be reduced to a quick presentation. Such reduction, she pointed out, cannot possibly illuminate the complex historical forces that led to our current moment in time.
With a gallery exhibition, by contrast, Brown had space to expand. And in that spaciousness she could connect the contemporary problems of pollution and mortality in Louisiana to a centuries-old history of a land that has yielded great profit, first for the sugarcane industry on the backs of enslaved people, and today for a fossil fuel industry that menaces the health of local inhabitants who descended from the enslaved.
Louisiana’s fragile wetlands are steadily collapsing. At the same time, as Brown sought to expose the actors responsible for oil and gas drilling, she often encountered murky corporate structures that made it difficult to determine who or what should be held accountable. This reality has led her to reflect on a point in time that, she says, “can feel like the end.”
Then, in a fluke of timing, after she had dedicated years to the research behind “What remains at the ends of the earth,” the installation was unveiled as part of Berlin’s Biennale for Contemporary Art just weeks before the U.S. Senate passed landmark legislation that included funding to help areas severely affected by climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in August, provides $60 billion for such areas, including $27 billion for a national “green bank” for clean energy projects, to be focused on low-income communities.
Asked whether this new legislation represents a hopeful development for residents of “Cancer Alley,” Brown could not say.
A recent court ruling has blocked Formosa Plastics from a planned $9.4-billion expansion in “Cancer Alley” that would have made it the world’s largest facility for the production of plastics and associated materials. This ruling has brought hope to some activists from groups such as Rise St. James, which is part of Brown’s network of collaborators. But the ruling has also exposed a sense of determination from leaders at Formosa Plastics and its FG LA division, whose public statement indicated that they will “explore all legal options” to push forward with the expansion.
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