Since he began producing art works in the late 1970s, New York-based artist John Fekner has never shied away from issues of social, economic, and environmental justice.
On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, Fekner revisited one of his classic videos from 1981 titled “Toxic Waste From A to Z,” and has inserted Tomas Oakman’s “Brave New World (Excerpt)” as the new musical soundtrack.
The original video was inspired by the horrifying story of the Love Canal development in Niagara Falls, New York. A largely forgotten chapter in American environmental disasters, Love Canal became a lightning rod for activists when the local newspaper, Niagara Gazette, discovered that 21,000 tons of toxic waste had been buried beneath the neighborhood by Hooker Chemical. This latest remix was precipitated by recent efforts of the community of Camillus in upstate New York, who have been fighting Honeywell International’s plans to bury toxic sediment from Onondaga Lake in Wastebed 13. The cause has attracted media attention partly because actor Alec Baldwin, whose mother and sister live in Camillus, has been joining with protest groups.
Part of the plan involves dredging more than 2 million cubic yards of chemically tainted lake sediment and piping it to a 163-acre waste site in Camillus called Waste Bed 13, on land owned by Honeywell. Baldwin said Honeywell should be forced to look for better solutions, even if they are more expensive.
Fekner’s original video, which was created on the Telidon, a cutting-edge computer for its time.
I asked Fekner to explain what he thinks has changed about environmental issues since 1981 and what role art can play? He responded:
Let’s face it the only thing that most people care about is their own self and a small circle around themselves.
Unfortunately, “As long as it’s not in my backyard and it doesn’t affect me” is one bad attitude.
However seeing younger people respond with genuine concern, care, and interaction in a worldwide crisis that lies beyond their own backyard is very encouraging to see. There are signs of living with principles and responsibilities and working toward solutions. I witness more of the younger generation on personal missions to be involved with what is wrong with society and working toward its improvement.
The Internet plays an important and crucial role. Information didn’t spread all that fast in 1981. You had to really be committed to your issue to search out information and dig deeper to find things. Social media has provided a great forum for circulating and sharing news and information instantaneously. I believe that is one of the good things of an instant this instant society.
I don’t expect everyone to save everything that needs saving in the world, but when you see somebody work toward something other than themselves, it is a big plus in that individual’s character.
His classic video paints a playful face on an ominous list of chemicals that feel so abstract as to almost be invisible. What does “aldricarb” or “endosalfan” look like? The children’s voices chanting the title of the work give it a sense of familiarity, evoking children’s television programs or a kid’s game. What amazes me the most about this video is that the stripped down compositions seem very contemporary in their undesigned-ness, even though they are obviously consciously constructed. I find myself wondering if I’m looking at a children’s educational program or a monitor in some chemical plant that is in the process of a meltdown.