Petroleum coke, or petcoke as it is (un)affectionately known, is a dust-like waste product made during tar sands refining, mostly made of carbon. It is used as a source of energy and carbon in industrial applications and, from from 2009 to 2016, it was kept in massive open air piles at the KCBX storage facility in Chicago. “The mounds lay so close to South Side neighborhoods…that residents said on windy days airborne particulates from the site drifted into their yards, coating their homes with a black dust,” write Natasha Egan and Karen Irvine, curators of “Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy,” an exhibition this spring at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago. The exhibition includes newly commissioned work from eight artists and teams who met bimonthly over the course of a year to discuss projects relating to Chicago’s petcoke piles and the wider petrochemical industry. Write the curators, “In time, our bimonthly working group became its own supportive community of artists and activists, with the cross-pollination of ideas and strategies informing the development of individual projects. The result is an exhibition that encompasses vastly different material investigations and media, from photography to video installation, sculpture to walking tours and interactive maps.”
Among the works in the show are Terry Evans’s portraits of activists and aerial views of the petcoke piles at the KCBX site; Victoria Sambunaris’s grid of ships passing through the access route that connects the largest U.S. petroleum port to the Gulf of Mexico; and Steve Rowell’s video mapping the transport of toxic substances in pipelines and the corporate headquarters of Koch Industries, Inc., which owns the KCBX facility.
The exhibition “grew out of our desire to bring attention to the devastating environmental and public health impact of petcoke, and by extension the oil industry as a whole,” the curators write. As this show suggests, taking part in activism is a job that many artists feel increasingly called to.
The Low Key Nexus of Oil and Trade
New England’s Urban Turbines
Photographing at the Dawn of Solar Energy
Photographing the Standoff at Standing Rock (for PDN subscribers; login required)