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Art exhibit visits the front lines of fossil-fuel extraction

From 1700s coal-mining on Mount Washington to 21st-century fracking, Western Pennsylvania has long been an epicenter of fossil-fuel extraction and processing. Now, on a rapidly warming planet, a new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art reckons with what it’s like to live where coal, oil and gas are mined, drilled for, and transformed into energy and greenhouse gasses alike.

“Unsettling Matter, Gaining Ground,” staged in the Heinz Architectural Center, features a series of newly commissioned works alongside pieces from the Carnegie’s collection.

While geographically the works range around the U.S., many connect directly to the Pittsburgh. That’s appropriate enough, given the region’s history as well as the roots of the museum’s namesake founder’s wealth in oil rigs and coal-powered railroads and steel mills.

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“We Refuse to Die”

The collective Not An Alternative’s “We Refuse to Die,” for instance, is a video installation featuring footage of industrial sites from the Pacific Northwest to Appalachia, including Shell Petrochemical’s sprawling new ethane cracker plant in Beaver County. Drawing on indigenous traditions, the artists salvaged wood from recent wildfire and carved it into animals like bears and owls that they posted on nearby properties to keep symbolic watch.

A gas pipeline cuts a swath through forest.
Cooking Sections
Carnegie Museum of Art
This photo of a gas pipeline in the Allegheny National Forest is part of "Offsetted," by the Cooking Sections collective.

“A big part of this project is to kind of refute those narratives of victimization of frontline communities. And instead here in this project they’re presented as communities that have agency over their fights,” said Ala Tannir, the Heinz Architectural Center curatorial research fellow who co-organized the exhibit.

A new four-channel work by acclaimed locally based filmmaker Tony Buba juxtaposes the literal collapse of the region’s steel infrastructure in the 1980s with the protests over the closure of UPMC Braddock Hospital three decades later, in just one of the Pittsburgh communities devastated by the loss of heavy industry. The work challenges the familiar storyline that the region’s eds-and-meds economy took over smoothly from steel, as symbolized by the site of the protests, Downtown Pittsburgh’s UPMC Building, formerly the U.S. Steel Tower.

In its room-sized installation “Offsetted,” the British art collective Cooking Sections critiques the practice of polluters planting trees to “offset” their greenhouse-gas emissions, which it calls “the financialization of nature.” The work incorporates cross-sections and branches of trees from Pittsburgh and elsewhere in Pennsylvania to reflect various social-justice struggles, like the branch of an English elm from the Lower Hill District, the Black neighborhood infamously bulldozed for urban redevelopment more than 60 years ago.

Similarly, a video installation by Imani Jacqueline Brown explores Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, where residents sickened by petrochemical pollution live alongside the legacy of the exploitation of historically enslaved people.

Pittsburgh-born Eliza Evans’ installation “All the Way to Hell” represents her activist art project seeking to thwart gas-drilling companies’ efforts to acquire mineral rights to land for fracking. Evans, who now lives in Brooklyn and Tennessee, plans to transfer the mineral rights to land she owns in Oklahoma to 1,000 people to complicate their sale to drilling concerns. The work features cylindrical core samples mounted on the wall like large decorative candles.

A cylindrical, greyish well-core drilling sample.
Harley Ngia Grieco
Carnegie Museum of Art
This well-core sample from gas-drilling is part of Eliza Evans' "All the Way to Hell."

Tennir said “All the Way to Hell” is meant to make the idea of fracking more real to visitors with no personal experience of it. “Part of what we’re trying to do in this exhibition is to bring this information forward so that people are able to have more concrete touchpoints to enter these discourses that are often quite abstract,” she said.

What’s Yours is Mined

“Unsettling Ground” also includes an art-historical curiosity. “The Continuous Miner” is a group of paintings and prints by seven artists who in 1954 were commissioned by the Joy Manufacturing Company of Pittsburgh and Fortune magazine to create visual interpretations of its new automated coal-excavation machine, meant to outdo human miners.

The artists included Roberto Matta, Ben Shahn, Saul Steinberg and Hedda Sterne. Their works were exhibited in the magazine and on a national tour. But though the project was conceived as a publicity campaign for Joy, most of the works that resulted ended up undercutting (so to speak) that goal. Several, for instance, depicts the machine as a sort of monster. The works were quickly donated to the Carnegie, exhibit organizers said.

The series inspired another piece of "Unsettling," landscape architect Walter Hood's "The Hill Series," a collage-style speculative vision for possible redevelopment in the Hill District.

Co-curators Tannir and Theo Issaias, who is associate curator of Heinz Architectural Center, said “Unsettling Matter” is meant to de-emphasize technical fixes to climate change and other environmental problems.

“Usually we understand the environmental crisis through the language of metrics, and this language of metrics is sometimes impossible to grasp,” said Issaias. “We feel no empathy towards numbers. But we feel empathy toward our fellow humans, other beings, and art has this particular capacity to help us develop, help us rethink, and actually feel empathy.”

“What we’re trying to showcase here through these projects is in fact that all of them are showcasing proposals that allow people to sustain their commitment to these causes, … rather than become immediately overwhelmed by them,” said Tannir.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: