“We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence…” – Annie Dillard
These are challenging times struggling with a deadly pandemic, an economic depression, political and governmental instability, social unrest, massive foreign state-sponsored data breaches, and a global climate crisis spinning further out of control. And yet for many, important details of these problems seem vague, obscure, or even faked, because there’s an information war raging, or as the conspiracy super-spreader and media star Alex Jones likes to call it, “Info Wars.”
A perfect storm of life and death issues, set to the background noise of crack-pot theories and seditious lies. All this at a time when nearly half the US population is unwilling to work together and simply wear a face mask to slow the spread of a dangerous virus. Without trust in critical information, we will never find the common ground needed to address the most pressing social and environmental issues of our time. In a sense, there no greater threat to life on this planet than lies and misinformation — not the unregulated exploitation of natural resources, radioactive and chemical waste spills, vast amounts of plastics dumped in the ocean, nor the specter of weapons of mass destruction. All of these issues will continue to fester unabated without a consensus of change. Our unsustainable consumer-driven lifestyle presses on, while polluting industries and corrupt political leadership willfully manipulate and conceal data for money and power, leaving the general populace blind and unable to distinguish fact from fiction, and ever more vulnerable to a catastrophic future.
“In July 1977, Exxon’s senior scientist James Black delivered a sobering message on the topic of climate change. ‘In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.’ ” – Shannon Hall, October 26, 2015, Scientific American
We have long known with certainty how harmful the burning of fossil fuels is to the health of the planet and yet the campaign of denial marches on. Refusing to acknowledge climate science as fact flies in the face of well-documented findings by an overwhelming majority of scientific experts from around the world, including oil industry scientists dating back to over 40 years ago. Groundless, absurd assertions keep undermining hard science in the constant political push to deregulate polluting industries for greater profits. In one of the most infamously farcical attempts to mock those who believe in research, Senator James Inhofe, in 2015, addressed the Senate chamber while holding a snowball. It was a childishly dramatic stunt to delegitimize a serious discussion on the subject of a looming global crisis. His cynical attempt to frame the issue as a hoax exhibited just how deep the deceit goes. After all, how could the climate be warming if one holds proof in their hands that it is still cold enough outside for snow to exist? That accredited climate studies are based on average daily weather for an extended period of time, rather than weather on a particular day, was conspicuously absent from his less than forthright presentation. Even as recently as September 2020, when asked to comment on the unprecedented wildfires in CA, believed to be at least in part due to climate change, President Trump mockingly commented, “I don’t think science knows, actually.” His “revelation,” apparently originating from his gut, encouraged the public to swap a verifiable process for studying the natural world, for one based on unfounded belief coming from the digestive system of a self-proclaimed “genius.”
The painting “Half Life” was the fifth panel in my interpretation of “The Course Of Empire,” inspired by Thomas Cole’s series by the same title. It presents a mash-up of Arctic and tropical regions from a post-apocalyptic perspective. The blue containers revealed in the melting ice flow are specifically designed to contain radioactive waste currently buried deep in an underground salt mine in southern New Mexico called WIPP, for Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. How the canisters ended up in a melting ice shelf is a mystery, as is the palm-tree-style cellphone tower. Key pieces of this story about destruction and chaos are missing.
If information is a coin of the realm, then its devaluation is about to leave us broke. There is no shortage of this particular “cryptocurrency,” but rather an overwhelming flood of conflicting news and alternative facts, pumped out 24/7 on cable networks, conservative talk radio, and social media platforms. Narratives diametrically opposed are competing to declare what is real or not, in the process creating deeper ideological divisions. It is as though we have recreated the tower of Babel: we no longer speak the same language, many have splintered into tribes babbling an incoherent mix of conspiracy theories, political agendas, and propaganda. For all the innovations in communication technology, we are failing at the simplest communications.
Painting, as a form of communication, might seem prehistoric in pace compared to a meme-driven digital culture, where meaningful exchange can only occur when the content is quick enough to get its point across mid-scroll, similar to how we hastily read bumper stickers while driving. Yet paintings require a more deliberate interaction, a slower pace to allow time for associations and meanings to unfold, both in the making and appreciation. The process of painting is similar to taking a journey, you figure out how to get from one place to the next without getting too frustrated when things don’t go as planned, and hopefully, an unforeseen development directs you towards an unfamiliar, curious place. What remains, the actual painting itself is evidence of the path taken, and the experiences encountered along the way.
Inspired by travels through the vast high desert regions of New Mexico, I began a series of paintings depicting satellite dishes, towers, and communication apparatus in 1996. Parabolic antennae remain a vital connection to “civilization” for many living in the far rural reaches of a sparsely populated state. Early on, antennae caught my eye in the austere landscapes, striking me as ears of the environment that listen to the babbling streams of invisible broadcasts. With the advent of cellphone technology, cellphone towers disguised as trees began popping up. This new invasive species seems to flourish at the contentious crossroads between technology, nature, and profit.
In my painting “Arboreality,” a faux-tree cell-tower appears to bend from a gale-force wind, or possibly from too many unlimited data plans. It appears to be a “snag,” a term used to identify a dead tree that has evolved into a habitat for animals and birds. What is real or fake in the struggle between the science and economics of global warming? Phony trees seem an appropriate conduit for Info Wars, and the spread of debunked conspiracies. They are conduits for fake news with their plaster branches and plastic needles, and the desire to camouflage the unsightly tower is also symbolic of a deeper acknowledgment, maybe even shame, about the loss of our natural environment.
“Thus began one of the biggest garbage sagas in modern history, a picaresque journey of a small boat overflowing with stuff no one wanted, a flotilla of waste, a trashier version of the Flying Dutchman, that ghost ship doomed to never make port.” -Alex Pasternack, VICE, 2013
There are instances when lies and misinformation can actually facilitate a positive result in addressing an intractable problem. The story of the MOBRO 4000, a garbage barge on a long fateful journey is a case in point. In 1987, after loading 3,000 tons of NYC garbage, the MOBRO began sailing south to North Carolina to dump its load. New restrictions regulating the amount of garbage put into landfills forced the need to transport the trash out of the region. But North Carolina wanted nothing to do with the barge and refused to let it port. Someone happened to spot a hospital bedpan in the piles of rubbish, and they called the local news. Fears that the MOBRO carried hazardous medical waste gave way to a media frenzy, soon becoming a national sensation. This blunder was also during the height of the AIDS crisis, an exemplary era of rampant infectious disease misinformation. To make the story even more colorful, Salvatore Avellino, reputed mob boss of Long Island’s trash-hauling business, was the owner of the refuse, so this was also a transactional and lucrative arrangement on his part. As the MOBRO continued sailing south, it was rejected by over a dozen places down the eastern seaboard. It made it as far as Cuban and Mexican waters, where it was chased away by warplanes from both countries. Eventually, after sailing 6,000 miles, the barge returned to NY where it had started. It was unloaded there, and there was no hazardous medical waste aboard. But with all the attention focused on this comedy of errors, it turned out to be a watershed moment for the ecology movement, establishing the recycling campaign we have to this day.
My portrait of the MOBRO, as it exists in my imagination, is of a wandering outcast shunned by all it meets. A smelly forlorn “Gar-barge,” as it was called, searching to find a place to call its own, and turned away as a result of fear and unfounded rumors. A byproduct of an uncaring social structure, and now separated from its home by law. The load it carries steadily increases to impossible proportions as it drifts along on the high seas. It is a sad Romantic tale of longing, with only seagulls for company on its pointless journey.
I propagate my own brand of misinformation as a painter, hopefully suspending your disbelief long enough for you to get lost in the context or scenarios I create. The power of illusion is well suited for exploring our relationship with nature, which has long been one of arrogance and exploitation. The notion we can control nature is more a product of an illusion of power than anything else.
So, what to do then about the fire hose of confusing information we seem unable to shut off? I’m often asked if current unprecedented social and environmental upheavals are inspiring to me, or if they give me an ample supply of source material for new work. The truth is: maybe a little, but not as much as you might imagine – I’d rather paint calamities than live them, and satire loses relevance and urgency when the reality is as crazy as anything I could conjure up in the studio. My politically-biased depictions stretch the truth. They are, however, meant to engage rather than deceive, a defining distinction to be made. Painting for me is an act of radical hope and generosity. Someone must be on the other end of the conversation, and I trust in that while working. In other words, to complete the function communicative of what I do, there must be a provoked, receiving end, a shared experience, an exchange of ideas that hopefully includes a sense of beauty, humor, and redemption no matter how dark the subject becomes. Tragedy is comedy realized too late, and I’d much rather have a good laugh than go down with the ship.
Scott Greene was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1958. He attended the California College of Arts and Crafts before receiving his BFA in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1981, and his MFA in painting from the University of New Mexico in 1994. A recipient of the Roswell Artist In Residency grant, he has exhibited nationally and internationally at the Kulturtorvet Gallery, Copenhagen, the Austin Museum of Art, the Canton Museum of Art, the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, the Albuquerque Museum of Art, the Santa Fe Museum of Art, and the Kohler Art Center. His work has been featured in Harpers, McSweeney’s, Zyzzyva, Artweek, and New American Paintings. Greene’s work is represented by the Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, California, and the Turner Carrol Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico, since 2015.
“MOBRO: High Seas Drifter” and “Arboreality” are featured in the traveling museum exhibition, ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT II (2019-2023).
“Babel Gone” was featured in ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT I (2013-2016).
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT I & II Traveling Museum Exhibitions, Produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C.
David J. Wagner, Ph.D., serves as Curator and Tour Director of ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT I (2013-2016), and ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT II (2019-2023).
Information about ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT II is available at:
This blog is part of MAHB’s ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT II series, a travelling museum’s exhibition.
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