Power Switch: A Gathering Place for Western Neighbors

In 2012 I wrote about the controversy surrounding British artist Chris Drury’s installation Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around. Three years after its sudden removal from the grounds of the University of Wyoming, apparently on its perceived condemnation of the extractive energies industry, it was the topic of discussion on a pasture hours away in Sublette County, Wyoming. It is easy to look at the controversy as two-sided, one for the energy industry, and one for environmentalists; but, as with any controversy it is so much more complicated. Sublette County artist Sue Sommers sees the grey areas of the removal that still haunts the small Wyoming art world, but she rails against the idea of censoring artwork from a university campus, regardless of the content. Some remember the incident as a failure, but to look down at the wildflowers blossoming at my feet, it is hard not to see Carbon Sink as a success.

Looking down on Power Switch. Photograph by Jennifer Rife.

Looking down on Power Switch. Photograph by Jennifer Rife.

In some ways, these flowers, shaped in a 100-foot diameter circle and line easily recognized as the ubiquitous symbol for electronic power, are a world apart from Carbon Sink’s former home in Laramie. And yet, Power Switch arose, in part, from a need to continue the discussion started by Drury’s ill-fated work. Created by Sommers and collaborators David Klaren and JB Bond (upon whose land the piece grows), Power Switch is, according to the artists: “a provocative metaphor for power and energy in all its natural and human forms.”[1] But as a closer examination of the title reveals (consider the ambiguities of the two words, both verbs and nouns), Power Switch is not as easily comprehended as it originally appears. Take, for example, its relationship to canonical western earthworks like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (mentioned in the artists’ promotional material). Like Carbon Sink, it draws inspiration in shape and scale from predecessors; and, like the Spiral Jetty in situ, it relies on a first viewing from the elevated position of a ridge. But unlike both Drury and Smithson’s work, Power Switch draws its creators into a certain relationship of care and cultivation, it requires a carefully learned and experiential understanding of the land. Weeds need pulled, perennial seeds need sewn, and the quickly changing climate must be considered.

Sue Sommers on the path leading down to Power Switch, visible in the middle ground.  Photograph by Jennifer Rife.

Sue Sommers on the path leading down to Power Switch, visible in the middle ground.
Photograph by Jennifer Rife.

This alternate relationship to the earth is clear when talking to Sommers, who explains the amount of work required to maintain the shape in the first year of the piece’s life, as she yanks errant plants from the ground. However, like Carbon Sink and Spiral Jetty, Power Switch is primarily interested in energy. This assertion is particularly true when thinking of energy in its many forms, from the solar energy that powers the growth of the flowers to the entropic forces that Smithson relied on to erode Spiral Jetty. The elephant in the room is the extractive energy industry, which fascinated Smithson at the Great Salt Lakes, and its apparent condemnation of Carbon Sink, which led to the work’s removal. Once again, with Power Switch, things are not so simple.

Sommers reacts against an out and out dismissal of energy development, and she comes to this from a lived history with Sublette County, a center of the natural gas boom. The areas known as the Pinedale Anticline and the Jonah Field contain much of the nation’s natural gas, which has pumped capital into the region. In her 2007 New Yorker article on Sublette County’s boom, Wyoming-based author Alexandra Fuller described the state as a carbonocracy, “indebted to minerals for its promise of an easy life, yet strangely impoverished by its own wealth.”[2]

This analysis has particular resonance in light of the Carbon Sink controversy. When Fuller wrote, and in the years following, the ozone levels in rural Pinedale were compared to those of mega-metropolis Los Angeles, and exceeded federal health standards.[3] Sommers allows that the air proved difficult for many, particularly those with health conditions like asthma, but she was quick to note the improved conditions, confirmed in an August 28th report by Wyoming Public Media.[4] But, as Sommers explains, improved conditions were hardly inevitable. She attributes much of the change to pressure from Pinedale group C.U.R.E.D. (Citizens United for Responsible EnergyDevelopment), locals willing to hold industry’s feet to the fire, who organized to hand out DIY air quality test kits during the worst of the problem. The relationship to energy that Sommers describes is a pragmatic one; industries won’t regulate themselves, but in her opinion it is a losing battle to advocate for their total removal.

This pragmatism may strike followers of eco-art as surprising, but Power Switch is no polemic. More than many, Sommers is realistic about the history of her part of the West, a place long ranched, drilled, and mined. Before the United States Government began handing out land to ranchers, a site near Pinedale was the location for an important annual fur trading rendezvous, a heavily promoted chapter in the area’s history. While talking at the Power Switch, Sommers pointed toward the Rendezvous site in the distance, and our conversation turned to nineteenth-century artist Alfred Jacob Miller’s (liberally) rendered paintings of the 1837 event. With a chuckle Sommers mentions that she has tried to document Power Switch in such a way that Miller’s view fills the background. Her invocation of the picturesque West alongside the developed West points to another strength of Sommers’ thought process. The two are inseparable. Industry and natural spectacle are never far apart in Wyoming, though tourist draws like Yellowstone and Jackson Hole may pretend otherwise. Industry has a way of making itself visible in this state, even when we attempt to practice historical amnesia.

Looking back up the ridge from Power Switch. Photograph by Michaela Rife.

Looking back up the ridge from Power Switch. Photograph by Michaela Rife.

When I asked Sommers how she would feel about Power Switch being coopted by a “side” (environmentalists or energy developers), she opines that either would be missing the point. Recent community open houses for the piece demonstrate the real importance of the work, as a gathering place. Like C.U.R.E.D., it may be a burr in the saddle of industry, a reminder that neighbors can come together and mobilize when their lives and lands are at stake. Tritely, it could be called a new Rendezvous. Hopefully, where Carbon Sink looked like a festering sore in the earth, one that might not heal, Power Switch looks annual and renewable. Prominent Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick has lamented that Westerners “share the same region and its history, but we wait to be introduced.”[5] If Sommers has her way, next spring may see energy workers weeding a patch of flowers alongside a local environmentalist.

Power Switch offers hope and conversation in a bleak and reactionary debate. But where hope and action are powerful and evidently effective in the hands of Pinedale citizens, they cannot be cause for a victory lap. An earlier leg of my trip through Wyoming wound past Teapot Dome, site of the early-twentieth century oil scandal that brought down members of the Harding administration, and deep into a ravaged landscape. Along the straight highway a lone bar is surrounded for miles by electrical wires crisscrossing more densely here than in an urban block, all to power drilling equipment. The hope that filled the discussion at Power Switch, of DIY citizen agency, seemed miles away from the denuded landscape. Power Switch must be both gathering place and call, it must be local, but it must also spread its roots, it must be a meeting point cultivated across the industrial West.



[1] Pipeline Art Project, “Power Switch: A Guide for Visitors,” http://pipelineartproject.com/images/powerswitch/Guide-FAQ-LTR.pdf

[2] Alexandra Fuller, “Boomtown Blues: How natural gas changed the way of life in Sublette County,” The New Yorker, February 5, 2007. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/02/05/boomtown-blues

[3] Benjamin Storrow, “Beyond Sublette: Once a Pinedale problem, ozone becomes a challenge for Wyoming,” Casper Star Tribune. December 14, 2014. http://trib.com/business/energy/once-a-pinedale-problem-ozone-becomes-a-challenge-for-wyoming/article_fd476d97-a797-5e72-be33-d4028b5cd43e.html

[4] Bob Beck, “Wyoming Outdoor Council Rep. Weighs In On Report That Ozone Levels In Pinedale Are Down,” Wyoming Public Media. August 28, 2015. http://wyomingpublicmedia.org/post/wyoming-outdoor-council-rep-weighs-report-ozone-levels-pinedale-are-down#stream/0

[5] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton& Company, 1987), 349.

Excavating Carbon Sink: Meditations on Art Removal

The former site of Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around, University of Wyoming, Laramie. Photograph, author’s own. August 21, 2012.

The former site of Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around, University of Wyoming, Laramie. Photograph, author’s own. August 21, 2012.

‘Arguments,’ such as they are, given in support of the removal of public art in our time range from political to aesthetic to moral. In some cases, as in the April 2003 toppling of Sadam Hussein’s Baghdad statue, the removal is documented as a cause célèbres. In others, as in the recent removal of disgraced Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s statue, the endeavour is shielded from the prying eyes of the emotionally involved public and secreted away in disgrace. But what of the abstract, those works not attached to a specific person? Perhaps one of the most famous cases of public art removal occurred on the night of March 15, 1989, with the dismantling of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, previously resident of New York City’s Federal Plaza. From the moment of its 1981 installation, Tilted Arcgenerated a nationwide debate, both within arts circles and without. Complaints included the inconvenience that the 120ft long, 12ft high piece of curved steel caused the Plaza’s office workers, the fear that it would attract graffiti and its potential for terrorist use as a blasting wall.[i] So, following a public hearing, Tilted Arc was cut into three pieces and unceremoniously carted off to a scrap yard. A similar scrap yard ending recently befell artist Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around, formerly installed at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.[ii]

I previously wrote about Carbon Sink on this site, following the controversy it attracted, largely a product of the ire felt by Wyoming lawmakers in coal rich counties. Notably, Representative Tom Lubnau felt compelled to “educate folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.”[iii] This and other threats garnered a brief spate of international attention before the controversy ostensibly ceased, as Drury predicted it would. Fast-forward nearly a year, to a week after the University’s May 5th spring convocation when, like Tilted Arc, Carbon Sink was unceremoniously removed, as quietly as possible. However, unlike Serra’s work,Carbon Sink was denied its proverbial day in court. From the time of its removal, those of us not living in Laramie and near the site, waited until the end of July to learn of the piece’s destruction via Jeffrey Lockwood’s Wyofile article. No pre-emptive press releases were issued, no public forums were called. Reasons cited included the unlikely (the piece was always meant to come down) and the insulting (it was too costly to maintain). The wood was sent to the university dump, while the coal was (of course) sent to a power plant.

Approximately a month after Drury’s coal burned, the West exploded in flames with the worst wildfire season in recent memory, fuelled (to some degree) by the pine beetle killed forests. These human and environmental tragedies prove, more than ever, that sensitive and complex work like Drury’s is vital. In my first analysis of Carbon Sink, I hoped that it would serve as a marker for memory in the minds of the state’s future leaders headed for a career in energy policy. Clearly, this is no longer possible in the way that I had hoped. But if the powers-that-be think that an incongruous patch of freshly lain sod can cover the fact of Wyoming’s energy dependence, they are ignoring the reality that every realist painting of unspoilt landscapes and every photograph of a running river reveals more in what they leave out than in what they include. The state’s residents know that just outside of the frame is an oil derrick; hidden in the river is tainted water. In desperately clinging to sanitized ideas of Wyoming, uncomfortable political, environmental, and aesthetic realities are cast into stark relief.

Though Carbon Sink’s removal marked a sad day for the arts, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope from the artist himself, who speculated last July that if the work was “to just sit there and get accepted, maybe it is not doing its job.”[iv] I would argue, that when a state scrambles to control its art, this often means the tide is turning. I doubt Wyoming has seen its last “Carbon Sink”.

[i] Kwon, Miwon. One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 78.

[ii] Lockwood, Jeffrey, “Behind the Carbon Curtain: Art and Freedom in Wyoming”, Wyofile.com, July 2012. http://wyofile.com/2012/07/behind-the-carbon-curtain-art-and-freedo…

[iii] Representative Lubnau quoted in: Laura Hancock, “Criticism of ‘Carbon Sink’ art at UW generates heat,” Gillette News-Record, July 17, 2011.

[iv] Chris Drury, Interview with the author. Laramie, Wyoming. July 23, 2011.

POSTSCRIPT: An interesting and revealing article about Chris Drury’s artwork was published by Wyoming Public Media September 28, 2012: http://wyomingpublicmedia.org/post/documents-show-artwork-removed-e…

Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: A Marker of Western Realities


Visit the official Wyoming state tourism website and you will be greeted with promises of “untouched” beauty. Nature is a crucial part of the state’s public image, packed within the “Forever West” campaign that greets visitors on billboards, websites and television advertisements. The message could hardly be any clearer: Wyoming’s greatest cultural resource is its land, wide open spaces and natural wonders. And lest you feel the need to hurry, don’t, the west is forever, limitless, like its sight lines. Yet drive any of the state’s roads and in addition to uninterrupted western views, you will find numerous oil derricks, energy plants and windmill farms looming large on the horizon. Of course none of these visions fit into the tidy packaging of “Wyoming: Forever West,” and despite the attempt to sell Wyoming as the land of inexhaustible natural wonders, it is virtually impossible to live in the state without acknowledging the financial debt owed to the energy industry, and members of the industry are quick to remind the public of the role their money plays at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

In this environment the University of Wyoming Art Museum director Susan Moldenhauer has undertaken a program of public sculpture, Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational which stretches across Laramie. On July 23, 2011 I drove to Laramie to see the most recent addition, British artist Chris Drury’s installation Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around. With Drury’s commission the University received a new level of publicity, with coverage in both the New York Times and the London Guardian. The discussion was not an examination of the merits of the sculpture or its place in a larger program of public art, however, but reportage of the controversy surrounding what Jim Robbins described as a “coal-themed sculpture.” (i)

Both the New York Times and The Guardian picked up on the Casper Star-Tribune’s article entitled “University of Wyoming sculpture blasts fossil fuels,” in which Jeremy Pelzer elicits comments from Wyoming Mining Association executive director Marion Loomis, who seemed to take Drury’s work as both a personal attack and an attack on the energy industry, suggesting the installation of a sculpture honoring coal. As the story gained traction Wyoming representative Tom Lubnau used the Gillette News-Record to casually threaten the University saying that the occasion afforded him an opportunity to “educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.(ii)” Despite the controversy, Moldenhauer and Drury held firm to the position that Carbon Sink is not a didactic piece, not a targeted attack on big coal. Still, Carbon Sink has neither been examined as an important part of Drury’s oeuvre nor as a nuanced consideration of the reality of the contemporary American West.

Early in his career, Drury accompanied British artist Hamish Fulton on a 1975 walk in the Canadian Rockies. Drury cites this mountain walk as an integral point in his artistic development, noting the impulse to make site interventions as both shelter and marker. Broadly, he describes his work in terms of microcosm/macrocosm, of working around the globe but ever conscious of patterns (such as the vortex) that appear in the smallest fragments of cells. His practice has taken him from Antarctica to Sussex and, in 2008, the Nevada Museum of Art.

CHRIS DRURY: MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS saw the artist install works both within the museum walls and in site specific locations outside, weaving together a consideration of regeneration and the state’s history of nuclear testing, while allowing for views of the expansive western sky through a rooftop cloud chamber. Looking back from the perspective of Carbon Sink, MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS reveals Drury to be an artist un-swayed by the romance of the West, sensitive to its often difficult realities.

When commissioned to create a piece for Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational, Drury traveled to Laramie to explore concepts. During a conversation with Jeffrey Lockwood, Professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wyoming, Drury became aware of the spate of dead trees in the Rocky Mountain region. The culprit is the pine beetle, an insect native to the region but typically killed by freezing winters. As Western winters have warmed, the beetles have thrived. Lockwood observes that while people notice this change, no one has connected Wyoming’s financial success, gained primarily through the energy industry, to these beetle-killed trees. This relationship, of livelihoods and energy with earth and insects coalesced perfectly with Drury’s interest in life and death cycles (as in the mushroom at Nevada) and the vortex form he had been exploring, as a naturally occurring pattern.

So when Drury returned to Laramie in July, the campus was treated to a new sculpture, one that consisted of a vortex of charred, beetle-killed pine logs and Wyoming coal, swirling into a hole dug into the ground. Drury had previously worked with both wood and coal, and was fascinated by their intertwined fates. As a resident of the first industrialized country, Drury is particularly fascinated by coal and had previously used it to construct a chamber in the crypt of St. James Church, Piccadilly, London. In that case, the coal not only acted as a shelter for the human body, but was itself sheltered by the architecture of the capital city. In the case of Carbon Sink, the Wyoming coal is exposed not just to the eyes of passing pedestrians, but to the elements. And rather than offering the idea of shelter, Drury conceptualized the form to pull people down into the sink, which it demonstrably does. Perhaps it is the fact that coal is extracted from beneath the ground, hidden away for most of its life, which allows us to consume it so voraciously. In Wyoming, the visual impact of its extraction is relegated to mining sites; however, the pine trees that stretch across the Rocky Mountain region are not only highly visible, but an integral part of the natural beauty that Wyoming is so eager to promote. Carbon Sink connects the cycle of tree to coal, and joins what happens below ground to the landscape captured in family vacation.

Carbon Sink detail

Wyoming state tourism website <http://www.wyomingtourism.org/>

Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational <http://www.uwyo.edu/artmuseum/explore/outdoor-sculpture/index.html>

(i)< http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/21/coal-themed-sculpture-annoys-lawmakers/>

New York Times <http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/21/coal-themed-sculpture-annoys-lawmakers/>

the Guardian <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jul/22/wyoming-university-coal-chris-drury>

Casper Star-Tribune’s article <http://trib.com/news/state-and-regional/article_82943c8e-c869-5ffd-9874-8730df510368.html

(ii) <http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com/stories/Criticism-of-Carbon-Sink-art-at-UW-generates-heat,59941?content_source=&category_id=&search_filter=Tom+Lubnau&event_mode=&event_ts_from=&list_type=&order_by=&order_sort=&content_class=&sub_type=stories&town_id=>

Nevada Museum of Art < https://www.nevadaart.org/exhibitions/detail?eid=121>.

CHRIS DRURY: MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS < http://www.colum.edu/CCCPress/books/mushroomsclouds.php>