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Obscurity: Life Inside the Smoke


Discovery Museum, World Forestry Center, 4033 SW Canyon Rd, Portland OR

Justseeds artist Roger Peet is co-curating, with Erica Thomas, a show of new works by Portland, Oregon artists addressing the theme of wildfire smoke, and what it means to live with and against it.

Obscurity: Life Inside the Smoke

The seasonal arrival of wildfire smoke affects communities across our region. At the height of fire season, anyone who spends time outside knows that the forests are burning, and almost everyone has the sense that things are getting worse. The smoke permeates our lives and livelihoods, and makes us all aware of the new reality that we are struggling to understand.

Wildfire smoke makes it hard to tell what is going on; it obscures what is happening. At the same time it is intimately with us: in our hair, in our clothes, and in our lungs. Smoke enters and occupies our homes, our communities, and our streets.

Scientific consensus holds that human-caused global warming is one of the reasons that wildfire smoke is getting more intense. Other causes of catastrophic fire and smoke are less familiar;  a century of strict fire suppression has built up available fuel, and the intrusion of the built environment into previously wild land has changed the chemical composition of the smoke released when those places burn. The cultural logic that views forests as sources of commodities makes it difficult for our society to relate to those forests in less destructive ways. We reduce them to their monetary value in a process that mirrors the way that fire turns them into smoke.  Smoke is a specter, come to remind us that we have to find a new way to live with the forests that surround us.

We know that natural and human-started wildfires (and the smoke that follows them) have been present in the forests of the American West for thousands of years. The indigenous peoples that have stewarded these landscapes for millennia have well-developed and practical cultures of burning to shape landscapes, promote forest health, and secure access to traditional foods. In early accounts of the region’s European colonization, settlers describe the landscape as being shrouded in smoke for half the year. There was a time, then, when smoke meant something different than it means now.

Through new work by six Portland-based artists, this show examines what we know and think we know about wildfire smoke, and how it makes us feel. We want to imagine how our relationship with smoke and fire might look in the future, and how we can respond collectively to the presence of smoke in our lives and the fires that put it there.

Anti-capitalismEcology & AnimalsEducationEnvironment & ClimateHealth

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