Two films on toxic waste to show for free in Pullman

May 31, 2013

Two new films about toxic waste are coming to Chicago’s Pullman district Saturday for a free screening dubbed “The Unnatural Natural.”

Sarah Kanouse, an artist and professor at the University of Iowa, says she created the film Around Crab Orchard to raise questions.

“What is nature, what is our relationship to nature?” she said. “How can we wrap our heads around contaminated nature?”

Kanouse’s questions aren’t idle. Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois has been home to munitions manufacturers and other industries since WWII, and the site is now severely polluted and home to a federal prison. It remains a federally-managed site for recreation and for the protection of native species’. The image of this toxic wildlife refuge, packed with contradiction, fascinated Kanouse.

She says sites like these reveal nature as something humans “co-create,” that is not separate from us.

“We have to do something with the forms of nature that we produce, even if they are damaged,” she said.

Damaged natural areas are a familiar sight in the Chicago region, from Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (a former Superfund cleanup site) to the Calumet Core, an area of the South Side and Northwest Indiana that’s littered with contamination sites from abandoned industries, and with efforts to restore open space. The Pullman State Historic Site is another location of contaminated and abandoned industrial land struggling to remake itself in a new economy. The old factory area is now home to a bird oasis and gardens.

Kanouse calls her film an “essay” rather than a documentary, and an essay in the traditional sense of the French essai: an attempt, a raising of questions without clear answers. The process of creating the film, she said, only raised more questions.

“What other kinds of political, social and environmental questions can we start considering if we get beyond this idea that nature is this pristine thing out there, and we realize that it’s actually quite intimate?” she said.

The other film, Yucca Mtn Tally by Phoebe Brush, calls itself a “desert meditation” on the storage of nuclear waste.

Yucca Mtn Tally (2013, 21 min., DVD projection) and Around Crab Orchard (2013, 69 min., DVD projection) are showing at 2pm, Saturday, June 1 at the Pullman State Historic Site,11057 S. Cottage Grove Ave. (enter on Cottage Grove). The free screening is a project of South Side Projections.

Lewis Wallace is a Pritzker Journalism Fellow at WBEZ. Follow him @lewispants.