Shanna Merola is a visual artist, photojournalist, and legal worker. In addition to her studio practice, she has been a human rights observer during political uprisings across the country - from the struggle for water rights in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, to the frontlines of Ferguson, MO and Standing Rock, ND. Her collages and constructed landscapes of climate chaos and pipeline spills are informed by these events. Merola lives in Detroit, MI where she facilitates Know-Your-Rights workshops and coordinates legal support for grassroots organizations through the National Lawyers Guild. Her work has been exhibited both nationally and abroad.
PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: We All Live Downwind
The images in We All Live Downwind are culled from daily headlines – inspired by global and grassroots struggles against the forces of privatization in the face of disaster capitalism. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein writes about the free market driven exploitation of disaster-shocked people and countries saying, “the original disaster—the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane — puts the entire population into a state of collective shock”. The scenes in We All Live Downwind, have been carved out of dystopian landscapes in the aftermath of these events.
On the surface, rubble hints at layers of oil and shale, cracked and bubbling from the earth below. Rising from another mound, rows of empty mobile homes bake beneath the summer sun. The bust of small towns left dry in the aftermath of supply and demand. In this place, only fragments of people remain, their mechanical gestures left tending to the chaos on auto. Reduced to survival, their struggle against an increasingly hostile environment goes unnoticed. Beyond the upheaval of production a bending highway promises never ending expansion - and that low rumble you hear to the west is getting louder.
When and where did We All Live Downwind begin?
The inception for the series began a few years back, around the same time that I became involved in grassroots political organizing in Detroit. The city - burdened with the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history - was also placed under Emergency Management which completely stripped residents of their voting rights. The fallout from these two major events opened the door for a wave of privatization and austerity measures - from attacks on public services, to education, and even access to clean affordable water.
In 2014 as the tragedy of Flint started to unfold so did an unprecedented water shut-off campaign for residential households in Detroit. There was a ton of public opposition, and I had started working for Civil Rights attorneys with the National Lawyers Guild, defending activists who were engaging in civil disobedience and street level protests. By 2015 the conversation on environmental issues and water rights had taken center stage, and I was meeting people whose lives were deeply impacted by these policies. Some were getting rashes from contaminated water. Others, living in the shadow of an oil refinery, talked about high rates of asthma and cancer.
That’s when I’d say my research phase really began, around 2015.. I started to combine some of the legal research with stories I’d hear out at a protest or during a town hall. In the months and years to follow I wanted to know more about environmental battles outside of Michigan and travelled to document Superfund sites like Love Canal, NY and the Altgeld Gardens on the southside of Chicago. A common thread connecting many of these communities can be seen in the unregulated dumping of toxic waste into low income and POC neighborhoods. It’s the same story time and again, of corporate negligence, environmental racism, and class warfare.
Where do you see this project going?
I usually work on several projects at once and have been involved in a number of amazing collaborations recently, so I’ve been taking my time with the series - the bulk of which was made between 2016-2018. There are a few more pieces that I’m excited to finalize this spring before I begin printing for exhibitions later on in the year. I’ve also had some institutional support along the way, for which I am eternally grateful! I made several pieces while in residence at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH (17’). The dedicated time, solitude and support was an incredible gift. The following year I continued the series at Lacawac (18’) an artist residency and nature sanctuary on a small lake in Pennsylvania, where I met climate change scientists who also informed the work. Then, earlier this year, I had the honor of receiving the 2019 Image Maker Award at the Society for Photographic Education’s national conference, “Myths of Photography and the American Dream”. I’ll be using this award to fund a solo exhibition of “We All Live Downwind”, opening this fall at Notre Dame University’s Photography Gallery at Riley Hall in South Bend, IN. I love lecturing and meeting students at universities so it’s a perfect fit and I hope it will keep traveling.
What helps you sustain your current creative practice?
Although my studio work utilizes constructed images I’ve been inspired by straight photography since my very first darkroom class. I feel incredibly lucky to have a job where I can use photography for documentary purposes on a regular basis and have built up a pretty extensive archive over the years. One day I started going through it all with my dear friend Kate Levy – an incredible artist and filmmaker who I’ve worked with extensively in the past. We started making diptychs from our archives to create a narrative about the relationship between power structures and pipeline routes. The project combines my legal documentation with her photographs of the devastation post Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, and the Bakken Shale fracking boom. Through an investigation on the cause and effect of disaster economies, the work examines deindustrialized landscapes marked by environmental catastrophe, surveillance, political unrest, and increased militarization. The project culminated in “Oil + Water”, an exhibition of still photography and video at Owens College that ran concurrent with Sculpture X in Toledo, OH, last fall.
What’s next for you?
I started a new project this year! It’s about Cold War anxiety, the rise of nuclear testing in North America and brutalist architecture. Several months ago I got my hands on a copy of Carole Gallagher’s “American Ground Zero”. In the 1980’s the photojournalist travelled across the Southwest to document stories from radiation survivors and atomic veterans. The book made me realize how little I know about the atomic era. In February of this year I began a new series of collages based on this research at the Kala Art Institute in Berkley, CA. During my time there I was surprised to learn about the significant history of nuclear testing in the Bay Area, and went on day trips to document some of the decommissioned bunkers and old military sites that still dot the coastline.
Other than new work, I’m focusing on building my Art + Law Series, which I’d like to start offering more regularly. I piloted the workshops last fall as visiting faculty in the Photography Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Some of the seminar topics include - Freedom of Speech and Censorship Battles in Contemporary Art, Know Your Rights for Photography: Defending the First Amendment in Public Space, and the Question of Copyright. I want to expand on the content of these and create more workshops for the coming year.