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Who is a doomsday prepper: a hopeful environmental activist determined to inhabit our planet long after it is beyond repair; an anti-establishment conspiracy theorist attuned to impending social and economic chaos; or a tech industry magnate as terrified of a post-apocalyptic world as of their own mortality?
Colleen Hargaden’s exhibition, Strategies for Inhabiting a Damaged Planet at Hunter Shaw Fine Art, reflects this seemingly incongruent cross-section of the American public that traverses ideologies, faiths, and parties. While each viewer may easily locate within this work a reflection of their own position—liberal or conservative, hopeful or pessimistic, climate activist or climate denier—Hargaden illuminates the connective tissue uniting these otherwise diametrically opposed publics: a rapidly growing individualistic tendency in our country, an interest in self-preservation above all else.
The exhibition presents two distinct, but thematically related, bodies of work produced over the last three years. The first, steeped in natural light from the gallery’s front window, includes two formally analogous pieces, Capsule One: How To Grow Sprouts (2018) and CapsuleTwo: Portable Apothecary (2020). Each comprises a metal shelving unit with a solar-powered waterproof case, which houses a video tutorial, alongside the materials required to—as their titles suggest—grow alfalfa sprouts or brew a variety of herbal remedies. Hargaden’s instructional videos are also freely available on YouTube, the site from which much of her research and prepper expertise is culled. Using social media and collective knowledge bases as a primary source of information reflects common practices of the American public, and raises vital concerns about the veracity of that which is being consumed. An innocent search for how to grow sprouts may easily lead one down a rabbit hole to the less altruistic, environmentally-minded branch of prepping, that of anti-vax conspiracy theories and citizen militias.
Installed deeper within the gallery’s unlit interior, the second body of work invites viewers to take a seat on Hargaden’s Water Brick (Furniture) (2019). There, visitors can watch her synchronized, two-channel video entitled Reproducing “H2O” (2019) or peruse a manual which details how to recreate the video frame-by-frame. The two-channel video comprises a small Videotronics tube television monitor playing Ralph Steiner’s 1929 film H20—one of the first cinematic records of water—and Hargaden’s large-scale recreation of the same work projected on the back side of the gallery’s temporary dividing wall. Black, imageless frames punctuate Hargaden’s version, indicating scenes that she was unable to recreate given the difficulty of reproducing H2O as time and geo-environmental changes impede access to the rapidly dwindling resource.
Though WaterBricks were originally conceived as a means to “deliver water and food to people living in remote, impoverished parts of the world [as well as] victims of natural disasters,”1 the prepping phenomenon, aided by corporate retailers, rebranded this technology to appeal to the average American consumer. In much the same way that Hargaden created minimal furniture out of these modular units, companies like Amazon feature product imagery in which WaterBrick containers serve as coffee tables in rather mundane middle-class homes. Here, an intended agent of environmental activism has been retooled, inciting and enabling apocalyptic fear to permeate consumer culture and domestic spaces.
Generations of social phenomena—including Cold War-era bunkers of the 1950s, the West Coast counterculture of the 1960s, and the back-to-the-land movement of the early 1970s—inform the current prepper movement. The latter touts a return to nature, divestment from corporate America and consumerism, and an o -the-grid lifestyle. Hargaden’s exhibition mirrors many of these values by generously providing seed packets and how-to manuals for all viewers interested in growing sprouts, making herbal remedies, or reproducing (Ralph Steiner’s) H20. However, a consideration of the artist’s material and informational sources points to some of the inherent contra- dictions of prepping, its dependence on capitalist systems, and its inability to manifest a truly off-the-grid lifestyle.
A quick Google search reveals that the materials comprising Hargaden’s installations are merely a few clicks away, available at mega-retailers like Amazon and Home Depot. This fact may implicate the artist as an unreliable narrator, potentially complicit in the corporate consumerism from which the prepper movement—and by extension the work on view—theoretically advocates divestment. That being said, the tension enlivened here between consumerism and environmentalism remains integral to Hargaden’s faithful representation of the movement. Corporations provide the “raw materials” for life outside of corporate America, as individual survival and convenience trump truly environmental and community-minded behaviors.
Through generously sharing both knowledge and sustenance, Hargaden’s work unites a diverse array of ideological perspectives in a space of mutuality, while simultaneously unearthing some of the darker valences of the prepper phenomenon. Strategies for Inhabiting a Damaged Planet creates a productive dialogue between oxymoronic practices, including off-the-grid consumerism, resource-sharing individualism, and technology-dependent survivalism. The irony inherent to these paired terms points to the complications underlying modern-day ecological strategies and the cross-section of communities that participate in them. So while some may see the works on view as artifacts of fear, others will see them as beacons of hope.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 22.