As part of the 2019 CENHS Symposium, Solar Studios presents Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear: a short, visual reflection on the recent Deer Park ITC fire disaster. Shot primarily through a car side-mirror two weeks after the fire had “ended,” this piece reflects on the role that perspective and (in)accessibility play in our reception and understanding of event and disaster. This video installation was conceived and filmed by CENHS predoctoral fellows Gebby Keny and Paul Burch and edited by Gebby Keny. Special thanks to Taylor Knapps and Lina Dib for technical and creative support.
Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear is part of an on-going series of projects hosted at Solar Studios with support from the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences (CENHS). Over the course of this semester, we have been using this confluence of CENHS and Solar Studios to think through questions of scale, location, perspective, and temporality, particularly as they relate to environmental degradation and our varied experiences of the mundane and the everyday. Thus far, this thought process has resulted in a “Slow Cinema Series,” which has invited those on the Rice campus to join us in acts of “collective viewing”; it has also inaugurated an upcoming project, Perspectives on Rice (working title), in which we will attend to the unseen processes and viewpoints which pervade our “pristine” campus. The video art project Objects represents another layer of this work and serves as a reflection on how perspective and (in)accessibility can condition our reception of “event” and disaster.
Following the “end” of the ITC chemical plant fire in Deer Park, greater East Houston, which raged from March 18th to March 20th, we resolved to use the Solar Studios screens to help continue conversations about the disaster. The initial plan was to put together a video with dual, juxtaposing shots of an exact location nearby the plant: one shot from the scene after the fire had been extinguished and one shot of online news footage taken during the fire’s peak. This ambition however, was soon proven to be naive, with the limitations we experienced on the ground at Deer Park, which included police stops, halting our progress. As such, we were urged to think more critically about questions of accessibility and perspective as empirical problems limited our capacity to execute the project as we had imagined it.
Both the coverage of the fire, and our attempts to access the site, were characterized by juxtapositions in supposed and actual levels of accessibility. During the weeks surrounding the fire, news about the event was pervasive and overwhelming, but also, opaque. What levels of toxicity, and what kinds of toxins, had been released into the air? How safe were we? Air quality levels in the central Houston area were described as “good” or “moderate,” but those same reports were also accompanied by long lists of side effects and lasting health conditions resulting from exposure to the released chemicals, which included Benzene, Naptha, and Xylene. Meanwhile, over in Deer Park, residents were asked to shelter in place on March 21st, a day after the fire had ostensibly “ended.” For those in central Houston not experiencing noticeable reactions to the released toxins, it quickly became easy to forget: a forgetting aided and abetted by the impenetrability of the information we had access to. This forgetting was also perpetuated by the materiality of the disaster itself, as well as the medium through which it transferred harm: ephemeral clouds of smoke replete with microscopic toxins.
Similarly, our trip to the site on the March 31st was initially accompanied by a technological sheen of accessibility. In our desire to find a location match for the footage of the fire we had accessed online, we used Google Maps to zoom in and out of the expansive industrial park where the ITC plant is located. We dropped ourselves down on the virtual road, looked around our virtual surroundings, and pinpointed where we thought the footage in question had been taken. We were exhilarated by the accessibility at our disposal; the ITC area seemed porous and penetrable, our artistic license secure. Upon arrival however, we discovered roadblocks at both of or entry points, police were checking IDs and we were told we could go no further into the “secure area.” Frustrated that we could not get out of the car to film, let alone make it to to our chosen location, we worked with our limitations, filming the police checkpoint that obstructed our progress through the vantage point of the car side mirror.
That constraint, and that solution, is ultimately, what helped Objects take its current shape. In the editing room it was still possible to re-introduce the fire and smoke to our footage by way of a cross-fade, but the necessity of our filming approach granted us a perspective and a semantic focal point we could not have anticipated. Each of the car mirror shots, of course, was imprinted with the standard safety warning, “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Simple and pertinent, this phrase helps to crystallize, and comment on, the dynamics of events such as the Deer Park fire, whilst also serving as an aesthetic model for our video project. By bringing the ITC Deer Park fire back to the Rice campus (which of course, was also here all along) we hope to disrupt the cycle of information overload and opacity, fatigue and apathy that accompanies disasters which feel both present and removed, particularly in privileged locations such as Rice University. We also want to impress upon our peers that whilst the objects (such as contaminants and toxins) that can do the harm may seem removed and nullified, they are always closer than they appear, not only during officially sanctioned moments of “disaster.” Finally, by bringing the location of Deer Park into the Rice Campus we hope to continue our work on scale, location, and perception, drawing attention to the fact that in a racially, financially, and geographically stratified city such as Houston, it is easy to forget about the immediacy of the harm and trauma experienced by others. Whilst the rest of Houston begins to talk about the fire as a past “event,” for many in Deer Park its lasting effects will likely be a conscious daily reality. Objects, events, and effects may be closer than they appear, but for some, they are closer than others.
*Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear premieres today as part of the CENHS Symposium and will be playing at solar studios throughout the coming week.*