Striking black-and-white photographs take over the MAS Context Reading Room space. Combined with color ones—dusty greens, natural blues and earthy browns—they set the tone for an eco-anxiety emotional rollercoaster. New Orleans-based photographer Virginia Hanusik has been exploring the transformation of the United States’ coast—an aftermath of sea-level rise and erosion that challenges the patterns of development across the past century. “Periphery” is based on her research on the Gulf Coast, particularly Louisiana, and looks into the social and environmental impact of the Mississippi River infrastructure—the fourth-largest watershed in the world, spanning over forty percent of the continental United States.
In Hanusik’s work, the relationship between landscape, culture and the built environment takes center stage. Her photographs serve as a spotlight to the past revealing natural scenery that is a product of human activity and engineering—which can be perceived as both good and bad. “Periphery” offers an opportunity for reflection. In what ways have the decisions of past development contributed to our current climate crisis? What kinds of actions could’ve been predicted, avoided or confronted in the process of altering nature? What sort of impact—short- and long-term—are we faced with?
As she examines flooding and the politics of disasters in the Mississippi River watershed, Hanusik specifically looks at how the edges, borders and boundaries that have come to define the landscape of South Louisiana—and coastal environments around the country—are in flux. But her photographs, featuring flood protection authority signs, raised buildings, houseboats, flood walls and Louisiana bodies of water, make for something eerie—almost uncanny. The landscapes evoke quietness, stillness; bringing solitary contemplation onto a distant horizon.
At the intersections of past, present and future, “Periphery” offers a visual narrative of climate change and a chance to consider the critical conditions arising from decades of manipulating nature—including the Mississippi River, the nation’s most crucial inland waterway. It makes one think about climate change and human-wildlife conflict, both pressing challenges for biodiversity conservation and human well-being in the Anthropocene. How much interference of human beings in nature is too much? How does one bounce back from the imbalance affecting energy sources, other species as well as the natural topography?
“New Orleans has been described as the impossible, yet inevitable city because of its complex geography that tests the boundaries of human engineering,” writes Hanusik in her essay, “A Receding Coast.” “Hurricanes, floods, and sinking land have forced structural innovation and adaptation in the city and its surrounding coastal communities,” she writes. But for an exhibition with disaster at its axis, “Periphery” is missing one key element: disaster itself. Rather than photographing actual scenes of disaster or aerial footage (as is often the case), Hanusik’s photographs intentionally present the everyday landscape. Her goal? To raise awareness, build connections and cultivate empathy; to encourage critical thinking, leverage collective action and strengthen our collective environmental literacy. Maybe that’s a great first step toward building a better, more livable future.
“Periphery” is on view at MAS Context, 1564 North Damen, through June 3.
Upcoming Talk: Floodplain Futures: Flood Insurance and the Economy of Climate Change, May 11, 2023, noon. RSVP here.
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