As the oil hits the reefs, offshore bars and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, are we faced with another Exxon Valdez catastrophe? Yes. Can we learn from that disaster in how this ongoing tragedy is documented by artists? Absolutely. Here is some of how we can do it. You may add your suggestions too.
I. In 1989, the internet did exist, but not many people had access. Graphic interfaces that led to the many free web browsers were limited, and didn’t do much. Few people had cell phones. The cable news paradigm as we now know it didn’t yet exist. CNN was there on Prince William Sound, but not in a big way. National and Anchorage newspapers were much healthier then than now, and made earnest efforts to cover events. The same was true of NPR and Alaska’s outstanding Alaska Public Radio Network. The influence of AM talk radio was much more primitive than it now is. Blogging was pretty much limited to what were called "newsgroups."
In 1989, when local Alaskans and interested independent journalists descended upon the scene, they were limited in methods they could use to document the ongoing tragedy by technology, communication and basic logistics. The technology was bulky, and mostly analog. The communication grid at the sites of the spill was limited to VHF and Single Sideband maritime and aviation-based radio. The logistics of getting there in late winter, miles from the ports of Valdez, Cordova, Whittier or Seward, was convoluted, and most charter boats and planes were already chartered or overbooked for the cleanup by the third day of the spill.
Environmentalists were mostly limited to helping in efforts to save individual animals once the animals had been brought to Valdez, Seward or Anchorage. There was no real time coverage of the growth of the spill by any parties outside of the mainstream. From the beginning of the spill, Exxon and the USCG attempted to attenuate and spin how the outgoing flow of information was handled. Over half the people Exxon flew into Alaska or Valdez on the morning of the spill were attorneys.
From the moment of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I was involved with artists who were or are also ecologically motivated. In the ensuing years, I’ve worked with several artists who documented aspects of the EVOS (Exxon Valdez oil spill) through visual, graphic and audio art. In the early 1990s, I toured with bronze sculptor Peter Bevis, as we presented his compelling castings of victims of that and other spills. We called our presentation "Artists as Environmentalists." There have been tenth and twentieth anniversary gallery shows in Alaska that have looked back on this. The most recent, produced by Homer’s Bunnell Street Gallery, SPILL: Alaskan Artists Remember, toured several communities last year.
In this collaborative process, I’ve learned a few things that might help those who hope to create visceral, living art about all the dying that is beginning to occur. Here are some suggestions:
II. In covering the Gulf tragedy, artists should attempt to capture the essence of what this is – a massive wave of death. There will be many compelling stories of people who manage to deploy a boom or clean an oiled bird, or come up with an innovative idea that might actually have a beneficial local effect. Documenting these instances is a good thing, but try to present the small and heartening victories in a realistic overall context.
As often as possible, artists should try to partner with local ecologists and environmental activists, from the areas where damage is happening. Try to understand these people as individuals, and visibly show them physically performing their tasks.
Avoid contacts with national environmental organizations. They do not understand what motivates independent artists. If you don’t make cute watercolors or coffee mug logos for brochures, fundraisers or auction events, they don’t understand you. Nor do they want to.
Try to find venues that can help you live stream what you are documenting. Hopefully, viable nodes for dissemination of images and artistic impressions of this will develop over the coming weekend. When they do, spread the word, possibly steering artists and other documentarians toward those sites that are becoming most effective.
Seek out folk musicians, rappers, slam poets and other artists who have a following among the very young. Develop some new collaborative co-ops for the purpose of truthfully recording what is going down.
It is likely that the spill will hit Cuba. If you are or know an artist with Cuban connections, you might consider getting your travel permissions going right now, as it sometimes takes a while to get all the papers in order.
BP, the USCG and Homeland Security will all give dozens of dog-and-pony shows in communities either in the line of fire, or recently slimed. Attend these events, and record the impressions of locals who came to them, especially right after they’ve been fed the inevitable total line of crap, such as "we will make you whole again."
III. Please add any further suggestions you might have in the comments.
Artists can uniquely portray ecological catastrophe. They can partner with ecologists, environmentalists and community activists, to give perspective on what has happened that nobody else can.
Here’s a remembrance of animals, from the EVOS disaster.