Late Tuesday night, a surprise art action took place at the site of the soon-to-open Whitney museum, bringing attention to the Spectra pipeline, the vault of which sits below the building's cantilevered design. The action was organized by a collaborative of international art and environmental groups, who have sent an open letter to the Whitney, asking six questions. During the action, The Illuminator projected a film onto the building's blank walls, pointing to the pipeline and showing scenes of earlier protests when the pipeline had been under construction, plus storm scenes from Hurricane Sandy (video above). The screening was followed by a symbolic ribbon cutting with special guest, Frida Kahlo of the famed Guerrilla Girls.
Sane Energy Project was founded because of the Spectra pipeline. Together with Occupy the Pipeline and multiple other community and anti-fracking groups, we fought the project for two years, in the courts and on the streets. On the day the pipeline went into service, in 2013, fourteen of us, including the local Councilman, were arrested for blocking traffic on the West Side Highway.
For us, it is important to remind the public, who may wish to visit the museum, of what sits beneath it, and why this pipeline, and the decision by the Whitney to site its new home there, are such a bad idea. Therefore, we were proud to be a part of this action. Here's a full recap:
A new website, created for the action, contains a crash course video of the issues and a copy of the open letter to the Whitney. The letter asks six questions of the Whitney and invites them to a public assembly, hoping that representatives of the museum will take part in a dialogue on art and fossil fuels.
The ephemeral nature of the action continued with a "light graffiti" performance, by artist Vickie DaSilva, on the steps of the museum, captured by time-lapse photography (below):
Artists also contributed to an "opening exhibit" for this particular inauguration, using the Whitney's collection for inspiration and tying the issue of fracking to the pipeline (see sample images, below). As Sane Energy Project Coordinator, Kim Fraczek, reminded the assembled crowd, we must be aware of what's happening "at the other end of this pipeline." Kim spoke of families who must hold bake sales in order to buy water to replace their poisoned wells.
Response to the action was widespread and controversial, including coverage by The New York Times, ArtForum, and multiple art, enviro, and architectural media (see sampling of links below):
The New York Times: The Whitney "has yet to open its doors in a new location in the meatpacking district, but on Tuesday night it unwittingly played host to its first radical art exhibition."
Gothamist: "Renzo Piano’s power-plant-like design for the new museum building makes for a perfect movie screen, allowing the mobile-projection team behind The Illuminator to project slogans and images of catastrophic storms onto the façade."
Popular Resistance: "Artist-activist Kim Fraczek reports that the goal of the artful protest was to 'engage the public to ask questions about fossil fuels, our future and what roles our institutions should play in leading us to a renewable future rather than succumbing to more fracked gas.' ”
Hyperallergic: "Frida Kahlo, a founding member of the renowned feminist art group the Guerrilla Girls, took part in the renegade ceremony." She said, "Museums have always overlooked big political issues, because their money comes from those powers that create those problems, and that’s why we really need to be the eternal thorn.”
Some media commenters were confused by the action, noting that the Whitney is not the operator of the pipeline. That's true, the museum did not build the pipeline, however, they did agree to house irreplaceable art (that will draw millions of visitors) on top of it. The organizers of the action hoped to draw the Whitney into a dialog about those decisions and their consequences, but so far, the trustees have remained mum.
The museum has now taken a page from Spectra's own playbook, issuing the same dogged reply to any media inquiries as to whether they are concerned about the safety of the pipeline, saying:
"Although the Spectra pipeline does not cross directly onto the Museum’s property, we followed the progress of the work because of its proximity to the site. Governmental regulators, who oversaw and monitored the pipeline’s construction, are responsible for ensuring that the pipeline’s ongoing operation meets all applicable standards and requirements."
A museum spokesperson has also stated that the art will be housed on the fifth floor of the museum, apparently concluding it will be safe there. The Whitney's statements, their understanding of blast radiuses, as well as their faith in regulatory agencies, have been refuted by Sane Energy Project (here and here are two responses). Just to emphasize how reckless those regulatory agencies are, note that they approved a second Spectra pipeline to be built adjacent to the Indian Point power plant.
Although we'd like to be celebrating the addition of any new art space to our city, it's hard for us to stomach the extravagant galas and red carpet events the opening of this museum is certain to bring, when we think about friends in upstate New York who live near one of the new compressor stations such pipelines have spawned, or families in Pennsylvania now raising money for a lawsuit against drillers.
These friends are now ill from exposure to emissions, and trapped in homes whose property values have plummeted, without relief from any government agency. This scenario has been repeated anywhere fracking has happened; the lives of ordinary people destabilized, their health at risk, their financial future uncertain.
This is why we felt we needed to bring attention, once again, to the Spectra pipeline. We could not be silent as the Whitney opens on top of it.