SALEM, Mass. — In the late 1600s, beset by an inarticulate religious hysteria and the rigors of the New World, the people of Salem set about burning the witches in their midst. Hundreds of years later and under the sway of a far different kind of fervor, they turned their attention to burning coal. Both of these events wove themselves directly into the fabric of this small New England town’s history.
In the case of the witches, the story of the trials (improbably or not) resonated over time, and tourism remains one of Salem’s prime industries. An elongated run-up to Halloween is a mainstay in a city that cultivates a decidedly spooky aura, and where witches still can be seen, albeit hawking lunch specials to tourists outside of restaurants and bars.
In the 1950s the spell cast by the promise of jobs and cheap energy overrode any more modern concerns regarding the environment, pollution, or climate change, and an enormous coal-fired power plant was built on Salem Harbor. As the years passed, a gritty film of coal dust settled across parts of the town, but the plant employed a lot of local people and that seemed to mitigate any concerns.
Flash-forward in time, and the spell has finally been lifted: Salem Harbor Station is being repurposed, changing over to run on natural gas, a process that will take several years to implement. The footprint of the site will be smaller, and many of the employees are losing their jobs (including people who have worked there for decades). The giant turbines that turned for 60 years finally sit silent.
In the wake of these events, a partnership between Montserrat College of Art and Footprint Power LLC (the new owners of the plant) has brought about an exhibition in the monumentally scaled turbine hall (yes, think of the Tate, but on a grander scale). The show is called Across the Bridge, a title that refers not only to how the students get to the plant (via a bridge from the adjacent town of Beverly) but to the cultural divide that separates the worlds inhabited by the students and remaining workers at the plant.
To many, the thought of a partnership with an energy company might ring hollow, summoning up the agitprop regularly delivered by ExxonMobil. Here, however, Footprint Power, to its credit, exerted no editorial control over the content of the exhibition and placed no restrictions on its workers (although any future repercussions remain unseen). For the project, 29 students and four faculty members from Montserrat teamed up with roughly one hundred workers at the plant. The collaboration began with students touring the site and then building up relationships with the workers over time (the project was part of a semester-long class). A good deal of the resulting art is documentary, recording workers’ concerns that range from future employment opportunities to plant safety, to the tedium (and terror) of industrial work. The students and some of the remaining workers also act as docents, leading visitors through both the exhibition and the plant itself.
Salem Harbor Station looms over the coastline with a Brutalist majesty. Enormous smoke stacks rise over the property, dwarfing everything beneath them. Walking in, you immediately feel small; the place is absurdly large, built to specifics that only an engineer might begin to understand. A homage to our large-scale industrial past, the building provokes awe, fear, and puzzlement. There are many levels, sub-floors, and catwalks, all designed with a single purpose: the burning of coal to generate electricity.
The exhibition is nestled on the main floor of the turbine hall and initially appears from the catwalks above as would a small encampment viewed from an airplane window. The setting transforms a rather large show into something miniaturized, like a dollhouse placed midfield on a soccer pitch.
The collaborative nature of the exhibit tamps down the personal or expressive gesture, instead mimicking what one imagines are the protocols of the plant floor — protocols that value the group and communal goals, anonymity even. The story told is omnibus versus auteur. Multiple threads weave a narrative of what it was like to work in the plant: photographs capture the space’s rough grandeur; video pieces allow the viewer to hear the workers talk about their experiences in an unvarnished way; in one installation, by Sarah Graziano, workers’ candid reflections on life at the site are printed on old plant manuals. The artists act as documenters of the past and present, drawing a human-scale narrative out of the plant’s closing. For the most part, the work is somber and compassionate.
Still, the physicality of plant itself continues to loom over everything, encasing the experience in the end-pages of a changing industry. For decades, this was the throne where King Coal sat; the students from Montserrat have captured his last choking breath.
Across the Bridge continues at the Salem Harbor Station (24 Fort Ave, Salem, Massachusetts) through July 2.
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