'Flickering at the Edge' should serve as a warning beacon

Andy Downing
Barry Underwood. "Deford Michigan (logs)," 2019, 40" x 55," archival inkjet print

Darren Miller splits his time between Columbus and San Juan, Puerto Rico, and in a recent phone interview the associate professor and photography chair at CCAD recalled visiting the island in the months after Hurricane Maria struck in 2017. 

“After the hurricane hit, flickering lights, or lights that didn’t work, became a normal part of life on the island,” he said. “I thought of it as a warning sign, and I thought about Cub Scouts, when I learned about semaphores, or the ways that lighthouses or sailors sort of communicate danger by rhythmically turning lights on and off. … In the case of Puerto Rico, I saw it as a signal of what is likely to become the new normal if we can’t get carbon emissions under control, which is slower, more devastating, more powerful storms, as well as more intense fires and floods. Things that will not just inconvenience people and cost lives, which is already happening, but will put stresses on our utilities, our grids and our highways in a way we might have a hard time keeping up with.”

Miller returned to this idea as he started to brainstorm concepts for the FotoFocus 2020 Biennial, which was constructed around the prompt “Light & ____.” “They wanted people to fill in the blank, and titles were constructed that way,” said Miller, who curated the exhibit “Flickering at the Edge of Anthropocene,”now on display at Blockfort, around this greater idea of environmental warning. Selected artists include Allison Maria Rodriguez, Barry Underwood and Kathryn Vajda, all of whom surfaced in tandem with the concept.

Though the 2020 Biennial was eventually canceled due to the coronavirus, FotoFocus pledged financial support to ensure the exhibit could move forth, a fitting decision considering that the rise in global pandemics could be traced, in part, to rising temperatures and human encroachment into previously uninhabited terrains.

“In my lifetime, and I’m 47 years old, we’ve seen the emergence of Zika, SARS, Ebola, HIV and even lyme disease,” Miller said. “And the reason we’re contracting these is because as our population grows, we encroach on wilderness habitats where animals, insects or whatever that carry the diseases live.”

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Miller said that he eventually homed in on the selected trio of artists because not only did their work address themes of climate change, but the three tended to use light more directly as a subject or character, creating deeper ties with the exhibit’s theme. 

In the experiential video installation “Greetings from the Galapagos,” for instance, Rodriguez explores issues of global warming, political agency and extinction. “The piece shows us these landscapes — I call them moonscapes. ... They’re sort of desolate landscapes populated with extinct species, or species that are on the verge of extinction,” Miller said. “For me, it almost becomes kind of a body count.”

Underwood’s work, in contrast, looks to the past as well as the future, reflecting both on what landscapes might have been previous to being clear-cut, bulldozed and replanted, in addition to envisioning what might unfold in future years. “Maybe there’s an investor who bought the land, and in five years instead of a meadow it’s going to be a strip mall with a Bed, Bath & Beyond as an anchor store,” Miller said. “So [the pieces] make reference to the past, but also things that have a possibility of happening in the future.”

Vajda’s photographs round out the exhibit, more directly addressing the issue of climate change in depicting a series of melting icescapes. “The forms almost remind me of futuristic cityscapes, like something out of ‘Blade Runner,’” Miller said. “But when you look closer, you begin to notice she cast these [ice] forms from the plastic packaging we usually throw away.”

Collectively, Miller hopes the works serve as a wake-up call to an issue whose impact has far-reaching global implications, and to which humankind has been slow to respond.

“It’s hard for people to see the dangerous ways we contribute to the changing climate, and how it has the very likely near-term potential to unravel our lifestyle, our civilization and maybe even the ability of our species to live on Earth,” said Miller, who will also moderate a virtual panel with the artists as part of the Society for Photographic Education South Central conference on Saturday, Oct. 24. “And I think the reason it’s hard for people to realize it is because … it is hard to see it happening over the span of a single human lifetime, although the global temperature is now 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was the year I was born, which was 1973, so things are happening quite quickly on a geological scale.

"But on the scale of a human life, it’s like the story of a frog in a pot being boiled ever so slowly, which is unfortunate. If we could see the same rallying around this subject as we did with, say, nuclear disarmament in the 1980s, perhaps we could make a real difference.”

Correction: An earlier version stated that Darren Miller was in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria. He actually stayed away from the island during the hurricane, visiting in the months after it hit.

Allison Maria Rodriguez. "Wish You Were Here: Greetings from the Galápagos," 2017, variable dimensions, 3-channel video installation.