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  • Writer's pictureConfluence Lab

Sightlines "The Future is Patchy"

Sightlines, the third and final exhibition in our Stories of Fire series, builds on the themes of Ground Truths and Fuel Loadings, adding new dimensions to art’s ability to represent “fire’s mercurial nature as well as the rich range of emotions that fire can produce.” Sightlines envisions what Pyro Postcards creators Emily Schlickman and Brett Milligan emphasize is a “multitude of futures”: some are “bleak. Some are exciting. Some are just fucking weird and stick in your mind.” Any of this multitude could come to fruition depending on how creatively we navigate the climate crisis, how honestly we reckon with injustice, and how successfully we learn to live with more fire.


The Sightlines exhibition grapples with the reality that, as one of the more unsettling pieces in Pyro Postcards reads, “the future is patchy.” Like a serotinous cone opened by fire’s heat, Sightlines releases a range of aesthetic and affective “seeds”: new ways to visualize, reimagine, and, to cite Schlickman and Milligan’s artists’ statement, “feel [our] way into possible fiery futures and our potential role in making them.”


 Pyro Postcards, Schlickman and Brett Milligan

 

With a palette of earthy colors that echo historical public lands promotional materials and PSAs, Pyro Postcards operates in unusual and sometimes startling affective registers. Some postcards invoke nostalgia for familiar images and aesthetics with playful reinvention of what we think we know; others traffic in more ominous tones that conjure but defamiliarize the dominant fear-and-dread mode of engaging with fire. On the playful end of this spectrum, the artists replace Smokey Bear and his individualistic “Only You” campaign with fresh nonhuman animal faces, shifting to a collective model of fire resilience led by more-than-human community members. (Vote for a new “pyrophilic mascot” here) A savvy squirrel named “Sooty” welcomes other “Pals” to help reseed after fires. Clothed in an official-looking uniform “Grazie the Goat” stands ready to chomp on flammable matter and reduce fire risk. A cougar crew boss with “Pyro” inscribed on their hard hat appears determined to take advantage of the perfect prescribed burn conditions. Like their human counterparts, these critters put safety first; woodpeckers and bobcats alike sport hard hats and Nomex. These “babes in the woods” are not passive victims; they have co-evolved with fire and can teach humans how to live with it. Other postcards take more serious turns: a promotional postcard featuring Giant Sequoia offers tourists the chance to see “earth’s largest dead trees,” and one postcard that seems to be burning from the top down simply warns: “We’re Fucked.” Overall, Pyro Postcards invokes a kind of affective dissonance, asking us to sit with uncomfortable, conflicting, non-cathartic emotions about fire and to harness that dissonance for justice.



Kasia Ozga's RE_MOVE N.22 & N.24


Kasia Ozga also recognizes the mixed feelings about fire that so many of us carry. In her artist’s statement, Ozga describes being struck by wonder when confronted with the scale of Pacific Northwest forests, where trees dwarf and humble us, reminding us that we’re a tiny part of a vast ecosystem. At the same time, Ozga feels “exhaustion from the intense thick smoke that blankets the region when forest fires are in abundance,” a common embodied reaction to what Lisa Cristinzo, in her artist’s statement for Fuel Loading, calls “the build up, the burn, and the burn out.” Yet Ozga’s work brings me from suffocation to relief and a kind of release. RE_MOVE N.22 draws the eye upward from root system to canopy, from a rich soil-like red clay, to wispy smoke-like tendrils. The texture of the hand-made paper conjures the crispness of burned bark. The perspective is road-like, two throughlines coming closer together, gradually, to simulate motion. A cleverly placed set of binoculars offers itself up as a tool for sharper vision. I feel poised to turn right, with the lines, and face what’s around the corner—our always invisible future. RE_MOVE N.24 is even more viscerally inspiring, with a beating heart at its center, and tree-like branches that are also lung-like, signaling for us to breathe deeply, spread our arms, and trust the ways that new growth post-fire will re-oxygenate our bodies and sustain our lives.


Forests as Data Governance, part of Sonia Sobrino Ralston’s more expansive Uncommon Knowledge project, also moves viewers, but taking a digital rather than an organic approach. Ralston’s project responds to a 2022 fire that threatened Google’s first hyperscale data center in The Dalles, Oregon, prompting the use of LIDAR scans to envision and anticipate future threats to digital infrastructure. Ralston adds forests to these pointlouds of data at the site to show how “plants become critical infrastructure, a form of long-term information storage” that requires protection and stewardship. Converting a forest into binary code, Ralston illuminates the motion, beauty, and agency that are easy to miss in more mundane representations of tree life. By turning plants themselves into infrastructure, Ralston highlights their vulnerability as well as their essential role in planning for a healthy future. Like Ozga’s, this work guides our vision in multiple directions: upward, to migratory birds and tree canopies, and downward, by way of an elegantly twirling conifer, to the intricate and enormous root systems that anchor individual trees in place, reminding us there’s often more going on below ground than what we can see above. Real forests are messy places; in Ralston’s deft hands, digital forests become uncanny pixelated versions of the real thing, both defamiliarizing our relationship to the material world and introducing us to magical new materialities, in which trees are information-rich, illuminated, and illuminating. 


left: from Sonia Sobrino Ralston's Forests as Data Governance. right: from Miriam Morrill's Pyrosketchology


At the other end of the representational spectrum from binary code, Miriam Morrill uses analog methods to bring the fire environment to life via a practice she calls pyrosketchology: a unique kind of nature journaling that builds hand-on awareness of fire by using sketching “to develop better observation skills, awareness, and understanding of the natural world.” Pyrosketchology uses simple materials—drawing tools, sketchbooks, human hands—to reveal the complexities of what Morrill calls the fire environment, which includes the traditional components of the fire triangle along with “fire seasons, ignitions, mitigation, effects, and regimes.” Available for free online, the full Pyrosketchology book includes guided activities to invite us into a more intimate relationship with the fire environment—a relationship founded on simultaneously apprehending fire’s visual, emotional, and scientific dimensions. Two activities featured on our site include one for measuring flammability by way of a leaf burn test and another for estimating tree cover in a forest by isolating and sketching a representative section of the canopy. Through generative prompts like these, Morrill’s pyrosketchology renders science and art deeply embodied, intertwined practices and inspires us to be curious as both citizen scientists and citizen artists.

 

Whether through the white spaces on a page, the distance between pixels, the layers of handmade paper, or the tensions between nostalgic, familiar aesthetics and ironic, playful reinventions of them, the art in Sightlines complicates well-worn emotional ruts and opens up other ways of feeling about, and with, fire—including those that are exciting and just fucking weird. Typically, fire feelings are reduced to variants of fear and sadness, and for valid reasons: when apocalyptic orange skies dominate news headlines, our anxieties are stoked; when catastrophic destruction and loss of life result from unfightable wildfires, we grieve. Yet to focus only on fear and sadness oversimplifies the range and complexity of our feelings about fire and can have negative impacts on management: a frightened public might be more prone to support total suppression and to shun the prescribed burning that is essential for healthy fire management. Sightlines encourages a more expansive affective repertoire as we resee and reconsider our “patchy” fire futures.

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