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.