When Victoria artist and educator Colton Hash was growing up in the mountains near Helena, Mont., he first started to notice the effects of climate change blowing in from above.
“I remember playing outside my house and there would just all of a sudden be a wall of orange smoke,” the 29-year-old recalls of the Rockies south of the border. “Or driving up to the top of a hill, being able to see this smoke and fire a few mountainsides over, and kind of wondering if it would come to our house or not.”
The Saskatoon-born artist notes, to be sure, wildfires are not in essence a bad thing as a regular part of nature.
“They’re a regenerative process,” he says, “a good thing in balance with the ecosystem.”
But in 2008, something new arrived in the mountains, chirping and chewing, with devastating results.
“The pine beetle epidemic swept through. And within a single summer, entire mountainsides of lodge pole pines and ponderosa pines just turned red, almost instantaneously.”
That same summer, Hash volunteered for Montana Conservation Corps, where he started talking to concerned scientists sounding alarm bells about — variously — the beetles, industrial forestation, global temperatures rising, and the bottleneck effect of not letting fires burn naturally for the past century, resulting in the devastating megafires we’re now seeing swallow cabins and towns annually.
All these component parts of a larger picture serve as the backdrop and inspiration for Hash’s compelling new digital art show opening at Harcourt House Friday, Synoptic Transitions: Digital Perspectives of the Anthropocene. (The latter word refers to our new geological age where human activity is having major consequences.)
The show opens 7 p.m., Friday — artist talk at 7:30 p.m. — and runs through June 4.
Synoptic Transitions is a series of large-scale digital artworks — some representative, others speculative — driven by satellite imagery and real government data around the continent, moving through its pieces into more impressionistic animations of the behaviour of wildfires, both in terms of devastation and regrowth, such as seen in his animated piece, Evolutionary Forest.
For the works, Hash serves as both artist and programmer, noting his art takes a lot of engineering, “and thinking through things in a mathematical way to make something that’s complex, but can also be run on a relatively low-powered computer,” he laughs. “It takes a lot of planning. But once you build those basic structures, it starts to become really intuitive, where you’re, say, adjusting colours or adjusting parameters on how wildfire spreads, or how trees grow.”
The show’s single most striking piece is Eye of the Anthropocene, an easy-to-absorb map layering wildfire activity and refinery flares, woven through with an intricate web of pipelines from Alaska down to — and indeed into — the Gulf of Mexico.
Hash notes that even though his map has no political borders, economic activity and legislation show exactly where certain provinces and states sit.
“Oklahoma is outlined by the absence of wells, where the states north of it and Texas to the south have a whole bunch of gas wells, all around. They’re visible through the infrastructure and resource development.”
Alberta and Texas both glow, as you may have guessed.
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The interactive projection piece Carbon Pulse: Edmonton Heartland, meanwhile, is an interactive data visualization seen from an airplane’s-view of the Edmonton area. It depicts greenhouse-gas emission data gleaned from government sources, which then creates gestural clouds emanating from urban areas and major industrial facilities.
When viewers approach the projection, they cast a dark, computer-generated shadow created in real time using a special camera hanging behind them. In our very shape, this reveals manmade transportation networks and energy infrastructure connecting our local industries.
“It’s meant to prompt viewers to consider their personal relationship to the landscape itself,” says the artist, “but also the idea of carbon emissions from specific places they might recognize.”
Though your shadow itself reveals human activity, Hash stresses his art isn’t about blaming individuals at the show for climate change.
“So much time and energy has been us focusing on our individual carbon footprints. Or even with an entire city, where if we all stopped driving, our city would stop emitting this much carbon,” he says. “But what this work shows, just using the data, is that there’s really just a handful of particular facilities and operations that are basically emitting almost all the carbon for an entire region.”
He stresses he’s not here to preach — just offer perspective.
“A lot of activist media has a role that can be really important,” says Hash. “But it often feels like it’s assuming your viewer doesn’t know or doesn’t care about an issue. And that way of relating feels not just unsustainable, but is also not the kind of culture we want to be creating.”
The artist, who feels most of us accept climate change is real at this point, is more interested in creating a space where people make their own connections, including aesthetic, and at their own pace.
“My installations are just trying to curate more of a quiet, slower space for reflection, rather than this super-fast paced, heavy-hitting activist media that you see on Facebook, where you’re scrolling, then scroll past it, then get hit with something totally different.
“If you can spend a few minutes, or even half an hour at an art exhibition, I’m just trying to provide a space where a viewer can make their own connections, rather than telling them what to think.”
Hash’s show is up in the main gallery; opening simultaneously in Harcourt’s Art Incubator Gallery is Glasgow artist Madeline Mackay’s multimedia show, Inside Out, which uses images of meat and flesh to create alternative anatomies and generally explore what it is to be human.
Both exhibits run through June 4.
Synoptic Translations: Digital Perspectives of the Anthropocene by Colton Hash
Where: Harcourt House, 10215 112 St.
When: Opens Friday with artist talk at 7:30 p.m.; runs through June 4
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