Investing in Our Future?

A story today on CNN explains one common approach to local economic stimulus. The town of Hardin, Montana borrowed $27 million to build a prison. It opened two years ago but they still don’t have anybody to lock up there. So now that the prisoners who have been detained at Guantanamo Bay for the past 7 years are potentially going to be moved to prisons within US territory, the town council of Hardin is lobbying strongly to bring them to Montana.

The debate in the article is around whether it is a good idea to bring these “potential terrorists” into the state. The sides are set between “it will bring jobs” versus “don’t bring those people here”.

No one seems to be asking if building prisons to stimulate job growth is at all a decent idea in the first place. A study by professors at Washington State and Ohio State Universities that looked at prison development from the 1960s shows clearly that this is not the case.

Results. We find no evidence that prison expansion has stimulated economic growth. In fact, we provide evidence that prison construction has impeded economic growth in rural counties that have been growing at a slow pace. Conclusion. Despite sharp ideological and intellectual differences, the critics and the advocates of the prison construction boom share the assumption that prisons can contribute to local growth, especially in hard-pressed local areas. This belief flies in the face of mounting evidence that state and local initiatives rarely have a significant impact on growth; this belief is also contradicted by our analyses.

So what would stimulate real economic growth? How about clean energy?

For $25 million dollars, the town of Hardin could have purchased 25 megawatts of electricity by building wind turbines (equivalent to 12,500 households). They could have reduced dependence on the 115MW coal-fired power plant that is a privately owned, for-profit business right on the edge of town, polluting the city while charging it per the KWH. There is a lot of precedence for wind energy in Montana. The 135MW Judith Gap is about 150 miles to the Northwest. A wind farm in Hardin would have still created construction and maintenance jobs. And with the extra $2 million they could have built a light manufacturing plant to produce photovoltaic cells. But there are plenty of better ways to spend $27 million dollars to aid a small town. I’m just promoting my version.

To understand why Hardin decided to build a prison instead of a wind farm or anything else that makes more sense, it is useful to check out the history of the project and the history of the privitization of the prison industry in the US since the Reagan era.

The prison in Hardin was built by the Two Rivers Authority, the Economic Development Agency in Hardin, MT. It’s a privately run prison which means that financiers stand to personally profit from it. And so those individuals associated with a Texas consortium lobbied the city council to pursue the construction despite the fact that the State gave no assurances that they would utilize it. The consortium of financiers included Mr. Michael Harling the head of Municipal Capital Markets Group ( a company devoted to providing 100% (no money down) municipal lease purchase financing to “public officials at the local, county and state level of government.” They work almost exclusively to build private prisons in low income rural counties. It’s all they do.

Laws were passed over the past 30 years (through the lobbying efforts of business men and financiers such as Michael Harling) that created incentives to lure cities like Hardin into making investments like this. There is a great old article by Eric Schlosser in the Atlantic Monthly that details this sordid history. It is a system that at the very bottom ends up incentivising incarceration itself.

As the prison industry has grown, it has assumed many of the attributes long associated with the defense industry. The line between the public interest and private interests has blurred. In much the same way that retired admirals and generals have long found employment with defense contractors, correctional officials are now leaving the public sector for jobs with firms that supply the prison industry. These career opportunities did not exist a generation ago. Fundamental choices about public safety, employee training, and the denial of personal freedoms are increasingly being made with an eye to the bottom line.

There is even a magazine dedicated to the industry.

It is a shame that Hardin is doing poorly but the answer is not in building prisons. John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, PA (just outside of Pittsburgh) knows what it is like to live in a city that has been hit by hard economic times. He has taken a different approach to economic stimulus than have the city council of Hardin, MT. By aiming to get Braddock in the door of the green industrial revolution, he will be creating jobs for his town and contributing to a better future for the environment. He will be putting people to work who would otherwise be ending up in the ever expanding Pennsylvania prison system.

Pecha Kucha

Pecha Kucha night is tomorrow night at Shelter and Elizabeth and I are presenting the Land Art Generator Initiative there. Per the standard protocol of Pecha Kucha we’ve put together a slide show of 20 slides that we can present for 20 seconds each for a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds for the presentation:

I’ve sped up the slideshow here so that it’s not too boring.

The goal of the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) is to design and construct Environmental Art installations in the UAE that have the added benefit of large scale clean energy generation. The sites will be tourist destinations that will draw people from around the world to experience the beauty of the
collaborative art creations here in the UAE. The art itself will continuously distribute clean energy into the UAE electrical grid.

Over 40 different methods of harnessing energy in a renewable and non-polluting way exist and many more are in the process of being developed. We’re going to show you three examples of some common
approaches that are proven and being implemented around the world.

For each example we will be listing megawatts and how many households they power for an equal comparison. to give you a sense, the entire UAE currently consumes 10,000 megawatts and it is estimated that we will need 40,000 megawatts capacity here by 2020. A solar power tower has the capacity to provide 10 – 40 megawatts. That’s 5,000 to 20,000 households.

Concentrated solar power is where parabolic mirrors focus energy onto a water pipe thus generating steam to run a turbine. It’s the technology that is being used at MASDAR’s Shams 1 project in Abu Dhabi. This will be a 100 megawatt plant which is equal to about 1% of the UAE’s current needs. 100 of these would run the entire country. We have the land and we have the sun.

This is the Agucadoura wave park off the coast of Portugal. Wave parks like this can generate about 40 megawatts per kilometer stretch and the further off shore they are located the more efficient they
operate. So the technology is there and there are so many other ways to generate clean energy. What we need is a way to stimulate and inspire support for it.

Land Art can be described as installation art in the open environment where the landscape acts as a complex canvas for the sculpure. They work together. They are linked. We are now going to show you a few slides of historic examples. While you look at these, think about how they might inspire works of art that are as captivating and at the same time harness the energy of the environment in which they are placed.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field is comprised of 400 polished stainless steel poles installed in a grid measuring one mile by one kilometer. The poles—two inches in diameter and averaging 20 feet and 7 inches in height—are spaced 220 feet apart and have solid pointed tips that define a horizontal plane.

Robert Smithson created a coil 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide which uses black basalt rocks and earth from the site that stretches out counter-clockwise into the translucent red water. One could imagine a similar work that has the added benefit of harnessing the energy of currents or collecting the inherent electronic impulses of salt water.

Michael Heizer’s City attempts to synthesize ancient monuments, Minimalism and industrial technology. The work derives inspiration from Mississippian mounds, Mesoamerican ball courts and Pre-Columbian sites. Covering a space approximately one and a quarter miles long and more than a quarter of a mile wide, City is one of the largest sculptures ever created.

James Turrell’s Roden Crater is an extinct volcano crater northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. Turrell purchased the 400,000 year old, 3km wide crater in 1979 and has been transforming it into a massive naked-eye observatory. Rooms within the work have pools of water which capture the sound energy of distant stars.

Currently the 10,000 megawatt energy needs of the UAE are handled with 60% gas fired and 40% oil fired power plants. MASDAR’s Shams 1 will take 1% of that and place it in the green piece of the pie. But the era of fossil fuels is nearly over and the pace really needs to be much faster. So what can we as artists do in order to stimulate the action that is so desperately required?

The time is now for artists to take an active role in solving this problem through their own work. Through an open call to international interdiciplinary teams we intend to generate ideas as the first step in the process. Since we have yet to hold this competion and exhibit, the slides you are about to see are sketches of example pieces.

SLIDE 13 & 14
This renewable energy media sculpture is a video projection, with live streaming video footage of Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska visible 24 hours a day on Sheikh Zayed Road on your way from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. The imagery will be ever changing as the wild landscape shifts minute by minute. The camera in Alaska will be powered by a Wind Turbine. This piece could potentially power itself as well as the petrol stations and street lights along the highway.

SLIDE 15 & 16
The Korfakhan Necklace consists of 832 wave energy collecting devices that resemble in their above water sculptural form the individual ornaments of a necklace. The long tendril shapes that they form follow the flow of the water to the shore and are ever-changing as the movement of the water. It is this movement of water that creates the energy inside the body of each amulet where fluid is pressurized to run a turbine generator. The energy is then transmitted along to the outermost band and to the shore where it is fed into the energy grid where it has the potential to power the approximately 15,000 households of this East coast city.

SLIDE 17 & 18
Shwaib Radiometers is an orchard of glass spheres 36 meters in diameter, each housing a light mill which spins when heated by the sunlight. This energy is captured by turbine generators below the ground at the root level end of the narrow shaft-housing trunk. The light passing through the spheres would be further utilized by photovoltaic panels located at ground level. All together the installation would roughly satisfy the electricity demand of the nearby town of Shwaib.

SLIDE 19 & 20
We need support in order for the initiative to have pragmatic site/art proposals that come out of an open competition where artists, scientists, engineers, and architects are encouraged to submit ideas.
Together we can create a system where the monumental task of shifting our approach to energy generation and consumption becomes a shared one. It is an effort that can be seen as being borne through collective and necessary interests. By approaching clean energy generation in this way, The Land Art Generator Initiative will have the effect of broadening the audience that will become engaged in the long-term solution.

Desert Hail

Two months ago I was caught in a hail storm on my way to Abu Dhabi early in the morning around 7am. Elizabeth found these photographs online. They were taken by Molimar Molina, who is an amazing photographer whose website you should check out. Clicking on each of the images below will also take you to Molimar’s original postings. While I was stuck in the storm I kept thinking, “If only I had a camera!” Thank you Molimar.
So the top of our car is permanently dented. The nearest overpass on the highway was packed full of cars trying to get under the cover of the bridge. No one could drive at the height of it. It was awe inspiring. And the intense clouds that I was driving into on the horizon before arriving at the actual storm were like what you’d imagine would mark the earthly arrival of some planet-destroying alien life force. Talk about the sky opening up. If I had not been inside a metal-roofed car, I would have had to curl into a ball on the ground and would have had large welts on my back for weeks. The size of the ice chunks were enormous – like baseballs. The ones on the ground have already melted.

Here’s a fun hail-related online game to play: effing-hail. It was kind of like that.


We found H&H Bagels at Circle Cafe across from Jumeirah Beach Park. The photo is my breakfast this morning. A tribute to world peace: An Everything Bagel from Manhattan Toasted in a Chinese Toaster, Halloumi cheese from Cyprus, Maaboochi Kuwaiti (pickled peppers), Croatian Green Olive Spread, Local Dubai Tomatoes, Iranian Red Onion, and Jackfruit Chips from Kerala, Served on fine Swedish Dishware.

We’re on

For our exhibit of the project at DUCTAC gallery, we were interviewed by Tamika Thompson from the Tavis Smiley show. I used to listen to Tavis Smiley every day on the radio a few years back and love the program. It was great to have the opportunity to talk about the project with such an amazing platform. Tamika Thomson is an incredibly great reporter, and we were very lucky to have her stop by the exhibit and take an interest in the project.

Here is the link to the video

You can see interviews that Tamika Thomson did with the other artists in the show here