A new book by Ryan Aasen (SMACT ‘20) and geographer Bart Orr (The New School) is included in the exhibition Impending at the Paramount Center for the Arts in St. Cloud, MN, running until October 30. Based on research of the attempted transition to solar power in Puerto Rico, Espejo Negro / Black Mirror traces the history of light from the industrial revolution to contemporary climate change infrastructures, highlighting its ongoing tension with colonial realities.
The black mirror—also known as the Claude Glass—was a tool used by landscape painters to help translate nature into an image. By framing the landscape while narrowing its spectrum of colors, the black mirror contributed to the invention of photography as it created a desire among its users to fix these “images” of nature.
Espejo Negro / Black Mirror proposes that solar panel can be thought of as a new iteration of the black mirror. Just as the black mirror was a precursor to photography, which revolutionized nearly every aspect of society, the solar panel can also be a precursor to something greater. Whether the energy future is liberating or repressive is yet to be seen, because solar panel installations are often less about helping the island and more about maintaining its status as a colony: solar panels are often targeted in ways designed to attract non-Puerto Ricans who choose the island as a tax haven.
Excerpt from the book:
“In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, one image in particular was used by news outlets to illustrate the disaster: a before and after satellite image taken at night, showing an island with a coastline once aglow from the nocturnal workings of dense cities and towns reduced to near total darkness. Puerto Rico was literally and figuratively in the dark—with much of the island inaccessible, those on the outside turned from cameras to satellites to see what was happening. Along with images of flooding and damaged homes that one expects from disaster journalism, the loss of illumination served as a symbolic stand-in for a catastrophe that would ultimately claim almost five thousand lives.
The loss of light as a representation of human suffering is a product of modernity, whose entanglement with light is both deep-rooted and continuously shifting. From the harsh arc-lamp lighting of moonlight towers to the first Parisian electrified boulevards, artificial light enabled the colonization of the night and offered a new tool in modernity’s quest for mastery over nature. Electric illumination was the fulfillment of a promethean quest to master light, promising to alleviate crime and unwanted social activities that took place in the darkness and, most importantly, to create a workforce unhindered by the cycles of daylight and able to work through the night to power rapid global industrialization.
These satellite images of an illuminated Puerto Rico before the storm failed to show the cost of a century of extraction that fueled the world’s Edisonian modernity, or that, somewhat paradoxically, the drive to electrify the world has created the conditions for powerful hurricanes to destroy the island’s power grid, leaving some in the dark for almost a year.”
Ryan Aasen is an artist, photographer, and researcher interested in the intersecting politics and histories of media technology and class structure. He was a Northern Lights.mn Art(ists) on the Verge fellow, an MIT Transmedia Storytelling Initiative Fialkow fellow, and his work has been exhibited internationally. He currently lives and works in New York City.
Bart Orr is a geographer and PhD candidate at the New School. His research focuses on climate change and the politics of planning and designing urban futures. Using San Juan, Puerto Rico, as a case study, his research investigates the social relations around community solar micro-grids as part of a larger experiment in producing resilient subjects, and his work aims to situate these current projects within the longer history of colonial exercises in governance and future-making on the island.