Brian Spies’ installation piece “Can’t Find My Way Home,” on display through May 31 at The Hex Factory in Fishtown, is a full-throated artistic roar against the insanity of “hydro-fracking,” the groundwater-polluting, ecosystem-destroying domestic oil-drilling technology currently in use in Pennsylvania and across the country. The exhibition combines Spies’ black-and-white photography of Dimock, PA, described by Spies as an “epicenter for the debate about ‘fracking,’” with photocopied print-outs of news articles about the situation in Dimock upon which Spies has written his comments, corrections and criticism.
Spies is a native of Williamsport, PA, and has a native kinship to the land now being exploited by gas-drilling companies. “This used to be a vegetable and fresh fruit stand. Now they sell the equipment used to do the mining with here,” he writes under one photograph. “Hydro-fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, is the practice of pumping massive amounts of water into underground shale – rock formed over millions of years – to force out the elements with the most natural gas and make them more accessible to drilling operations. Spies was partly drawn to this project, he has said, after hearing about how “oil men” were more and more swarming his native region of Pennsylvania, offering residents living under the poverty line large payments for the rights to drill and frack on their land.
The show’s use of published journalism brings into focus questions about the relations of power at stake here, specifically how corporations are given free rein to utilize dangerous hydro-fracking practices, and why the government is not representing the people’s interests by protecting them from fracking. Fracking taints watersheds and has already shown deleterious effects on the health of people and livestock in areas adjacent to hydro-fracking operations. Yet journalists at The Associated Press and The New York Times write as if there is some question as to whether or not hydro-fracking even affects groundwater. The truth is clear to anyone who has seen people set fire to tap water flowing out of their sinks near Dimock (and in upstate New York), but somehow, it’s officially still up for debate. Furthermore, due to some truly twisted political manuevering, in 2005 Congress voted hydro-fracking exempt from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency (the “Halliburton loophole“). So at this point, the Clean Air and Water acts and the Safe Drinking Water Act do not apply to hydro-fracking technology in the United States.
Spies actually finds some humor in attempts at image control by Range Resources, Cabot Oil and Gas, and Rice Energy, all companies with a hand in the oil-drilling of underground shale in Pennsylvania. They give their oil rigs friendly, appealing names, like “Captain Planet.” So Spies made a Captain Planet poster, which is included in the show, to help them bolster their image even further.
Curated by Jon Allen and Dr K. Malcolm Richards, “Can’t Find My Way Home” is a worthy and compelling installation piece. One only wishes that perhaps more of the photographs were printed on a larger scale, as Spies’ stark black-and-white images are compelling. His scrawled handwriting on articles and underneath photographs, at times whimsical and humorous, at times furious, is also tellingly descriptive of the range of emotions, from frustration and anger to spite and contempt, that led to the creation of this piece.
“Can’t Find My Way Home” will be up at The Hex Factory, 2080 Cumberland Street, through May 31. A First Friday reception will be held on May 4 from 6 to 10 p.m. For more information, visit BrianJamesSpies.com or dimockpaid.tumblr.com.
Ben Meyer is a writer living in Philadelphia.