Marissa Lee Benedict and David Rueter, I Can Only See Shadows, 2016 Credit: Marissa Lee Benedict and David Rueter

As far back as Ecclesiastes 3:20—”All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return”—dust has been acknowledged as an elemental constant in the natural world. However, certain types of the powdery substance aren’t so beneficial to Mother Nature. Take petcoke, or petroleum coke, the dustlike carbon material derived as a by-product of the oil-refining process. Around four years ago, Chicago’s southeast-side residents began to notice that the mountains of black dust along the banks of the Calumet River were having a negative impact on air quality and public health. Transported on trains from the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, petcoke was being stored at three sites on the southeast side, only a few hundred yards from residential areas. The exhibition “Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography alerts visitors that petcoke is a local and global hazard. Partnering with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southeast Environmental Task Force, curators Natasha Egan and Karen Irvine commissioned new works by eight artists and collaborative teams whose responses to this issue are displayed throughout the three floors of the museum.

Next to the introductory wall text there’s an image by photographer Terry Evans from November 3, 2015, of a march to ban petcoke that took place at Slag Valley in South Deering. Having dedicated her career to the relationship between communities and their landscape, Evans became aware of the petcoke problem in 2013, when the NRDC gave her a tour of the Tenth Ward. She photographed the BP oil refinery and storage sites from a helicopter. These photographs are paired with portraits and testimonials from activists, located on the second floor.

The artist Brian Holmes, who’s known for his writing on the intersection of artistic and political practice, contributes the highly enlightening interactive map Petropolis. Starting with stories from the south side, the map expands to metropolitan, continental, and global scale with information on power plants, railroads, pipelines, and ports. Victoria Sambunaris’s Industrial Shipping Vessels, Houston Ship Channel, Texas is similarly geographic: a grid of 45 photographs of ships passing through the route that connects the largest U.S. petroleum port to the Gulf of Mexico. Sambunaris tracked 34 of these ships and pinned them on a map with information about each boat.

Other artists engaged with the problem of petcoke in a more conceptual manner. Marissa Lee Benedict and David Rueter traveled to places as distant as China for I Can Only See Shadows, a three-channel installation about “the violence in dust” that’s the result of a two-year investigation. The duo of Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann originally proposed sealing off and insulating one of the museum’s galleries so that the interior would be empty except for 102 grams of petcoke. The MoCP rejected the proposal for obvious reasons—possible damage to the collection, concerns regarding the health of visitors and staff. So Geissler and Sann decided to mount their proposal in place of an installation, framing it on a wall alongside the institution’s response and various newspapers articles. In the gallery there’s also a photograph of what appears to be the same room with a pile of petcoke on the ground; in the middle of the actual space there’s a small sample of petcoke sealed in a Plexiglas case.

In a publication issued for the exhibit, Holmes writes of the petcoke problem that “thanks to the activism of Southeast Chicago residents, this simple but crucial fact began to leave the realm of managed oblivion and enter that of common knowledge.” With “Petcoke: Tracing Dirty Energy,” this environmental plague is not only documented but made more thought-provoking. In other words, the exhibition is activism.  v