Downstream refers to a natural phenomenon—the direction of water through a temporary or permanent pathway—and also describes the latter part of a sequence of events. In business and supply-chain processes, “downstream” is the stage where raw material goods are turned into products and sold to consumers, such as in the gas and oil industry. “Downstream operations,” for example, plan the reliable refining of crude into goods, including gasoline and diesel, plastic and rubber, and asphalt and solvents.
Drawing on the evocations of this term, this exhibition explores environmental ethics through art—namely, the unequal ways in which groups of people experience pollution, infrastructure breakdown, and climate change. Featuring artists working across photography, video, and sculpture, Downstream focuses on imagery of fluidity, contamination, and detritus. Drawing from deCordova’s permanent collection, the exhibition includes works such as Mags Harries’ arresting and curious Object Environment with Gloves (1991) and Paul D’Amato’s unflinching Girl in Rain, Chicago (1991).
Many works demonstrate the differing living conditions of people in the United States—particularly by revealing who has quality access to vital resources such as clean water and air, arable land, and recreational spaces, and by design, who does not. Climate change, classism, and racism are interwoven and shaped by economic and political decisions. One term for this circumstance—environmental racism—was originally coined by African American civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis in 1982, who described it as:
“…racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements.”
Together, the works in this exhibition underscore ongoing debates around equitable and tenable living conditions, especially for those in the current of environmental harm.
Main Image: Paul D’Amato (b. 1946), Girl in Rain, Chicago, 1991, C-print, 16 x 20 inches.