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  • Writer's pictureConfluence Lab

Sightlines "Just Futures"

Sightlines returns to one of Fuel Loading’s central insights: that fuels build up “not just via ecological accumulation, but also via social tradition and routine.” Sightlines suggests that our ecologies and societies may be so deeply and complexly intertwined that only art can disentangle them and help us see the distinct threads, and their intersections, more accurately. Recognizing that we’re all implicated in the buildup of these social fuels, how might we form new partnerships for justice? What new collaborations might be fertilized in the ashes of wildfires? How does resilience feel, and what practices and modalities—from mapmaking to performance art—might help nurture it? Does justice require a new suite of emotions to kindle and fuel it, and if so, what might that suite include? 

A sense of humor can be a kind of lifesaving device, a kind of fire shelter for the heart. As the wildland-urban interface (WUI) takes center stage in larger conflagrations, irony and dark humor can remind us of the incongruities in our attempts to integrate prevention into communities. Gerard Sarnat’s ironic treatment of a poorly-attended online fire safety session for residents of the City of Beverly Hills suggests the difficulty of reaching even privileged communities. Sarnat’s alliteration is harsh—hard-hitting home-hardening—but it uses that attention-getting craft technique to alert us to class-based injustice. The poem is structured like an interlocking toolkit, with line lengths that could be assembled like puzzle pieces. The lines of verse mirror the Zoom screenshot’s blocky text, which (if we read it “right”) is red to green, left to right, implying a tidy, simple building block style of home protection that eludes the randomness of fire’s impacts. Anyone who’s seen its impacts will have noticed the way fire jumps around, skipping some structures entirely while demolishing others. Like Kehoe’s small animal shelters, Sarnat’s work questions which protective tools are available to which kinds of animals. Sarnat notes a moment of perhaps unintentional humor—the meeting host asking if there are “any burning questions.” Intentional or not, this gestures toward the multitude of ways that fire rhetoric permeates everyday discourse, shaping material practices alongside attitudes about fire. The audience member’s question about whether large animals are evacuated to “Cow Palace,” a former livestock pavilion converted to an indoor sports arena, warns of a potentially unhealthy use of humor: as a deflection or self-protective mechanism, a way to avoid grappling with the seriousness of wildfire risk. 

left: Gerard Sarnat’s zoom screen capture, right: from Doug Tolman and Alec Bang's Response and Responsibilty 

Doug Tolman and Alec Bang take direct aim at colonialism, reckoning with injustice at both personal and broader scales. Their short film opens with Bang eating a sandwich and seeming oblivious to his surroundings: the empty place setting across the table, the barbed wire fence to his right. The camera cuts to a scene in which two people roll a bundle of barbed wire (which the artists describe in their statement as “a tool of bifurcation and colonization”) down a hill like a giant tumbleweed. We get a glimpse of them wrapping the table in the wire before cutting to a black screen, when the familiar crackling sound of fire consuming wood reveals that they’ve set the wrapped table ablaze. The artists describe this work as a performative response to an especially large wildfire in their region as well as “a response to the barbed wire that colonized the West, and a responsibility as settler-descendants to find our roles in unsettling.” What’s left of the table is threadbare, barely holding together. A film still looks alarmingly as though Bang is about to be, or has just been, burned over by the flames to his right, conjuring memories of activists using self-immolation to make their points. Sitting face to face with fire, engulfed in smoke and breathing its toxicity in close proximity to the burning table, Bang forces viewers to bear witness and to feel complicit alongside him. Tolman and Bang find inspiration in the concept of serotiny, which they visualize via a family heirloom: a maul with its sharp edge embedded in a conifer, which was cut down after a prescribed burn in Tolman’s home region. Serotiny strikes me as a kind of performative land acknowledgment that recognizes colonial legacies and invites reflection on what reconciliation might look like, both in terms of fire management—recentering Indigenous burn practices and enabling serotiny—and in terms of social justice as well. 

Megan Davis’s work gives voice and vision to a community trying, collectively, to process the Almeda Fire’s impacts. Davis and other members of the Confluence Lab Stories of Fire team partnered with Coalición Fortaleza and Our Family Farms to host a workshop in 2022. Lab members brought art supplies and a simple prompt: participants were asked to map their visions for a resilient future. Some teams braided yarn to signify their interwoven community; others created a door using layered paper, signaling a sense of welcome. For Davis, an experienced graphic designer, rendering hand-made images with a professional, design aesthetic allows her to create “unified digital designs” that are impactful and versatile. Working closely with community members to ensure integrity of vision, Davis’s creation of shareable files results in both distinctive artifacts unique to this community, this fire—artifacts that can be posted publicly to amplify community members’ voices—as well as templates that can be repurposed elsewhere. My favorite is an image of a large wave about to crash and overwhelm a tiny sand castle in the corner of the frame. But this impending destruction is not something to be feared. Rather, a small caption reads: “May our needs propel us to break and rebuild the very systems that left us in need in the first place.” This mantra, or prayer, bears repeating. Some structures and systems need to be “burned down” so they can be rebuilt with justice at the center.


For settlers, recognizing complicity with land theft, displacement, and repression of Indigenous burning practices is essential. As Indigenous fire practitioners have always known, fire is not necessarily destructive. Fire also cleanses, as Lab member Isabel Marlens reports in her essay “Fire Lines.” Fire’s ashes are seedbeds for necessary new growth. Like a wildfire, art can be a mechanism for “burning down” systems of injustice, clearing space for better futures and providing the seeds to grow toward them. Pyro Postcards exemplifies this creative destruction. Schlickman and Milligan repurpose Smokey’s neoliberal paternalism (“Only You…”) for decolonial ends in a postcard showing California’s tribal borders that implicates viewers in justice, captioned: “Only You Can Decolonize.” Another reads, in bold, all-capped, block letters, “LAND BACK.” Their “Right to Burn Fire Service” postcard speaks to a future where Indigenous burning practices are upheld as a valuable right as well as an ecological good. As we continue to make the future now, moment by moment, day by day, fire season by fire season, we’d do well to find more ways to invite, center, and amplify Indigenous fire knowledge. 

As a writer, I had hoped Sightlines would help me articulate a sort of conclusion to our three-part exhibition series. It didn’t. Instead, Sightlines leaves me feeling productively unsettled. These artists showcase the power of art to generate visions of futures that will “stick in your mind” for some time, and I’m left with wildly dissonant affective orientations to fire, with no single end game, no clear future, to pin my hopes on. But this lack of resolution doesn’t have to be scary. As Sasha Michelle White puts it, eachwound is an opening,” an opportunity to see the world more clearly and to rebuild it with new insights, better tools, and sharpened vision. It’s true that the future is an open question. But it’s equally true, as Sonia Sobrino Ralston reminds us, that “the future is always in the present.” Our vision of what comes next may be patchy, but these artists remind us that isn’t a bad thing. A patchy forest can be a sign of a healthy ecosystem, one where fires have been able to do what they’re meant to do: produce a messy mosaic and a resilient natural landscape. Perhaps human-led resilience efforts might be patchy in this positive sense, as we feel our way forward, toward murky but more just fire futures.

further considerations contributed by

Sightlines Juror Jennifer Ladino,

February 2024


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