Ashok Sukumaran, Postscript on the Order of Networks (detail), 2011, fourteen posters, each 16 1/2 x 16 1/2". From “The City Is a Burning, Blazing Bonfire.”

Ashok Sukumaran, Postscript on the Order of Networks (detail), 2011, fourteen posters, each 16 1/2 x 16 1/2". From “The City Is a Burning, Blazing Bonfire.”

“The City Is a Burning, Blazing Bonfire”

Ashok Sukumaran, Postscript on the Order of Networks (detail), 2011, fourteen posters, each 16 1/2 x 16 1/2". From “The City Is a Burning, Blazing Bonfire.”

This group show, curated by Fiona Parry, deftly brought together the work of three artists and one collaborative project, all linking art, energy, and ecological systems. Taking its title from Henri Lefebvre’s characterization of the city as a blazing site of powerful flows, interlinking colossal quantities of physical and human energy, it poignantly assembles various artistic dealings with the urban environment from distinct geopolitical and aesthetic approaches. A seventeen-minute video by Deimantas Narkevičius, Energy Lithuania, 2000, explores the history of Elektrènai, a town built in the 1960s to support a power station in the Baltic state, which was then part of the Soviet Union. Archival footage of people swimming in the lake that was created to provide cooling water to the power station represents the good life of modernization, while a voice-over describes how “nobody has ever experienced such joy as those who lay power lines.” Shots of a samba-for-beginners dance class and of a former turbine worker walking through the plant he helped build exemplify the town’s energetic synergy between the social and the technological. The low-budget production weaves between pedantic exposition and lyrical expression to relay a utopian moment that contradicts the common perception that the Soviet colonization was brutal—a reality obliquely referenced when the film informs viewers that many of the town’s inhabitants were former prisoners from Siberian camps.

That erstwhile faith in electricity-powered social well-being also contrasts starkly with our contemporary fear that modernization is catastrophically unsustainable. This was exemplified in Invisible-5, 2005, a photographic and sound installation made by the artists Amy Balkin, Kim Stringfellow, and Tim Halbur in collaboration with two organizations, Greenaction for Health & Environmental Justice and Pond: Art, Activism, and Ideas. Nine color images depicting sites between Los Angeles and San Francisco, among them a hazardous-waste-disposal area and an industrial dairy farm, complement recordings of twenty-three “audio tours” given by environmental-justice activists that explore the region’s unseen ecological despoliation. In one tour, we learn how pollution from energy plants, highways, a former naval shipyard, and industrial-waste sites converges on low-income and minority communities, which suffer disproportionately from higher rates of cancer and asthma as a result.

Balkin’s Public Smog, 2004–, a twenty-minute slide show, documents the artist’s intervention in the climate crisis by detailing her attempt to set up a clean-air park in the atmosphere via an emissions-trading scheme. The images show redacted legal documents and sundry e-mails with traders that record her efforts to gain position in the market for greenhouse gases. That her proposition ultimately fails elicits both the extreme difficulty of such an intervention (PUBLIC SMOG IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR DIRECT ACTION, reads one image) and a critique of privatizing the atmosphere in favor of a securing of the commons (PUBLIC SMOG IS A SCHEME TO BUY BACK YOUR RIGHTS ON THE OPEN MARKET, according to another).

Lastly, Ashok Sukumaran’s Postscript on the Order of Networks, 2011, is a suite of fourteen posters coupling images and texts that consider the theoretical linking of environment, energy, and economy. While network theory offers a critical tool in cybernetic analysis, it also enables social exclusion and totalizing monopoly, as exemplified in two posters. One shows massive pipes running through an Indian city, separating two adjacent areas (the text reads ALL NETWORKS EXCLUDE); another diagrams the “1318 corporations” that form the core of the global economy. The final poster proposes that we think about how to form new entities that might survive the “total loss of networks.” Seemingly abstract, the premise is increasingly imaginable with the mounting failures of contemporary “sustainable development.” Overall, Parry’s show succeeded by provoking thorny and urgent questions about art and activism, aesthetics and environment.

T. J. Demos