My Electric Genealogy

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Woman in man's dress shirt and tie with elegant 1930s hat looks upward toward her raised finger before a projection of arcing electricity and a vintage photo of a woman in a similar hat
Composite performance still, “My Electric Genealogy,” 2020

For nearly forty years my grandfather designed, planned, and managed the spider-vein network of lines connecting Los Angeles to its distant sources of electric power.  From the 1930s until his retirement as general manager of the LA Department of Water and Power in 1972, my grandfather made a second family of the grid and its substations, converters, and interties, photographing these monuments of the modern everyday with one foot in the aesthetic and another in the techno-scientific sublime. When he died, he left behind images of transmission towers along with snapshots of birthdays and family Christmases, inspiring me to re-imagine the electric grid as populated by non-human ‘uncles’ and ‘cousins’ whose names I should know and whose legacies will pass to my child.

My Electric Genealogy is an original, 90-minute solo performance that proceeds from this imaginative re-reading of my family tree. It combines live storytelling with still and moving images, choreographed movement, and an original score to make intimate the crumbling, carbon-heavy infrastructures that imperil the planet and to probe the aesthetic, ethical, and practical responses they demand.  These systems include not just power plants and transmission lines, but also ‘infrastructures of feeling:’ closely held beliefs about nature, gender, race, and progress. Wearing a midcentury men’s suit, I alternately embody my grandfather, my grandmother, my teenaged-self, my professional-self, and my parent-self to seek intergenerational responsibility. What does it mean to raise another human being in a climate-ravaged world, and can that act of social reproduction become a project of social and political transformation?

Bookended by the 99 years that separate my grandfather’s birth and my daughter’s, the performance charts both the specific trajectory of Los Angeles’s development from the early twentieth century to the present.  While set in Los Angeles, the story addresses the broader cultural, political, and ecological imagination—from the modernist optimism that built the Hoover Dam to ideas about urban sustainability that lead the city to divest its share of the Navajo Generating Station in 2016.  Reframing the power grid as a dynamic entity that connects diverse and unequally vulnerable communities, I ask how an ethics of care and mutual obligation might animate the response to environmental crises of the past, present, and future.

Trailer

Excerpt

Credit

Sarah Kanouse, My Electric Genealogy, performance, work-in-progress anticipated 2020.

Sound by Jacob Ross and Beau Kenyon

Ecologies of Acknowledgment

Meadow grasses in the foreground in front of waste processing digester.
Still from “Ecologies of Acknowledgment,” 2019

Commissioned by the University Hall Gallery at UMass Boston for the exhibition Local Ecologies, this video and companion letterpress print focuses on the land use histories of Deer Island in the Boston Harbor. Going beyond mere ‘recognition’ of Native territory, the project asks instead what it means to accept the relationships and responsibilities that come with living on occupied land. In the 17th century, Deer Island was a forced Indian removal and incarceration site, where between 500 and 1,000 people suffered from dire conditions comparable to a concentration camp. It is now the site of the Boston’s wastewater treatment plant.

Pedestal with stack of letterpress prints

The framed land acknowledgment is presented alongside a stack of leaflet prints available for viewers to take away in the gallery venues at UMass Boston, which occupies Massachusett land. In traveling versions of the exhibition, an annotation of the original print poses questions that might guide viewers in acknowledging Indigenous claims to this territory.

The three women interviewed for this film are of Nipmuc, Massachusett, and Natick Nipmuc origin. In not identifying themselves by name, they seek to elevate the collective experience of their peoples, rather than their individual voices.

Exhibitions/Screenings

Lowell, MA – UMass Lowell, University Gallery, “Local Ecologies,” January 21-March 6, 2020.

Dartmouth, MA – UMass Dartmouth, University Art Gallery, “Local Ecologies,” November 7, 2019-January 10, 2020.

Boston, MA – UMass Boston, University Hall Gallery, “Local Ecologies,” September 3-October 26, 2019.

Credits

Sarah Kanouse and Nicholas Brown, Ecologies of Acknowledgment, 2019. HD Essay film, 9 minutes, 53 seconds; three-color letterpress print, 12” x 19,” edition of 10; black and white letterpress print, 12″ x 19,” edition of 250.

Sound Mix: Jacob Ross

Letterpress: David Medina, Huskiana Press at Northeastern University