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An Eye for an American I

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artist and photographer Sean Smuda shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of […]

Epstein Friedlander Sean Smuda

Mitch Epstein and Erik Friedlander, American Power, November 1, 2013. Photo by Sean Smuda

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artist and photographer Sean Smuda shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of American Power by Erik Friedlander and Mitch Epstein. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

When I read the words “American Power,” I reached for my copy of The Corporation, the film that gives its subject the personality profile of sociopath.

Seeing American Power, I was impressed by its format: giant, well-plotted images, like monuments or theater settings. Power thus stilled became ready for its exposition and players. In a clear, almost tremulous voice, echoed by Erik Friedlander’s sometimes looped cello, Mitch Epstein began the evening with an account of the photographer’s sartorial normalcy: a once-in-a-year beautiful shooting day outside the Amos coal power plant in West Virginia, a human-height tripod, and head-size bellows camera aimed towards the perfect light. This light was quickly fanned into a squadron of flashing sirens: the sheriff, multiple police officers, and the FBI. One officer informed Mr. Epstein, while his gear and Polaroids were being rifled through, that were he a Muslim there would not even be a conversation. Welcome to American Power.

The placidness of the individual as he explores the real and symbolic workings of America’s energy infrastructure was exactly what was at stake in this world premiere. And this is how it somewhat predictably unfolded over the next hour or so, emerging somewhat disturbed, but ultimately unflappable, which is in itself perhaps disturbing. The show ended with a segue into what the photographer claimed to be a more philosophical body of work, documenting in black and white the trees of his native New York City. Along the way were the many dangling questions and characters that, were this presentation given at say an Occupy gathering, would have taken on very different meanings, like Power itself.

Intentionally, unspoken facts and narratives placed interpretation and follow-through on the audience. Why and how is it that Power has come to this? There was Boots, the kindly looking older woman with the gun in her easy chair and security cameras trained on her front yard to monitor harassment by the local power plant’s security force; a young female guard armed past her britches in the fluorescent hall of a power plant; a fuel station pump stating in commercial lettering: “Terror Free Gas.” These people and things were not given much time beyond their appearances, forcing the audience to empathize primarily with the disturbance of Mr. Epstein’s witnessing what should run quietly and smoothly. The dramaturgy of Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar refined the show’s pacing of these jarring silences, while the carbon-kevlar cello furthered their puzzled mediations. Sometimes Mr. Friedlander’s playing hinted at breaking the calmness with riffs suggesting Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance counterpointing Aaron Copland’s puritanical joys.

These presentational choices pointed out the limits and purities of the mute mediums and Messrs. Epstein’s and Friedlander’s adherence to them was respectfully restrained, elegiac and factual. They were matching infrastructure with structure, and the classical beauty of American Power speaks for itself. By giving the audience dramatic nuance that treated us as rationally cooperative and individually informed, the artists granted a democratically uneasy entry to the nebulous enabling of modern conveniences. Whether or not individual self-containment was disturbed enough to call for a restructuring of Power, the stage was set to usurp the sociopathic nature of the corporation’s perpetual motion machine.