Dan Peterman's Sulfur Cycle: A Disappearing Act
Written by Jack Schneider
Essay Section 1
In the summer of 2019, when I visited Dan Peterman’s (American, b. 1960) South Side studio—located in Experimental Station, a nonprofit incubator and cultural hub founded by Peterman and others—I was fascinated to learn about an artwork titled Sulfur Cycle (1994) that invisibly resides within the walls of the building I work in: the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA). Peterman and I decided to organize an exhibition revisiting the artwork, which the museum never formally acquired for its collection, but that is nevertheless part of the institution’s very foundation. But in the course of my research I found that after 1994, the Sulfur Cycle trail goes dark. Neither the artist nor museum staff tracked the movement of Sulfur Cycle, and I could not verify whether the project was completed per Peterman’s instructions for the artwork to be installed in the walls of the museum. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that Sulfur Cycle had, in a sense, disappeared. In this essay—written on occasion of Peterman’s 2021 exhibition Sulfur Cycle 2.0—I will trace the history of Sulfur Cycle; discuss how the project is entrenched in entangled histories of ecological degradation, environmental activism, and neoliberal politics; and explicate Peterman’s rearticulation of his project 26 years after its inception.
Dan Peterman originally presented Sulfur Cycle at the MCA in 1994 in the exhibition Options 48: Dan Peterman, curated by Lynne Warren. At that time, the museum was located at 237 East Ontario Street. The installation included six one-ton stacks of synthetic gypsum drywall displayed in a narrow gallery alongside windows facing the street. Peterman installed the drywall stacks on pallets in a manner reminiscent of how contractors would stage them at a construction site. Concurrent to the exhibition, the museum was in the midst of a massive construction project four blocks away at 220 East Chicago Avenue: a 45,000-square-foot building that would become the museum’s new home.
Sulfur Cycle was one of the final artworks displayed in the museum’s old building, and the project responded directly to this transitory moment in the institution's history. Peterman’s intention for the drywall after the exhibition was for contractors to use it in the construction of the new building, which the MCA planned to open in 1995. As such, Peterman also included in the exhibition an architectural planning model of what would become the fourth floor of the new museum, indicating in red where the Sulfur Cycle drywall should be installed. The artwork was to become a part of the museum and remain, in Peterman’s words, “permanently, yet invisibly, on display.” Despite not being able to confirm whether the drywall was in fact used in construction of the museum’s fourth floor, the 2021 exhibition Dan Peterman: Sulfur Cycle 2.0 is staged where the artwork may be located.
The disappearing act of Sulfur Cycle is, in a way, thematically in line with the original intent of the project. Drywall is the industry-standard material for the construction of residential, commercial, and institutional buildings. It is installed over studs, mudded together to hide screws and seams, and ultimately painted over to hide the structural composition of a building beneath a monolithic facade. In the context of museums, drywall is essential for creating the standard “white cube” galleries ostensibly meant to exist as neutral backdrops for the display of artwork. Drywall, then, is meant to disappear. As curator Lynne Warren noted in her essay printed in the gallery guide for the original exhibition, Peterman’s artwork generally brings “attention to areas of everyday life common to all and ubiquitous in their presence.” Indeed, drywall is ubiquitous in the built environment; surrounding us in most of the spaces we live and work in. However, for all its ubiquity, we rarely regard it. With Sulfur Cycle, Dan Peterman asked us to critically consider this common material, its origins, and its relationship to interwoven ecological and economic systems.
As writer, critic, and activist Lucy Lippard notes, a mine is “the reverse image of the cityscape it creates—extraction in aid of erection.” Indeed, every structure that is erected, including the MCA, corresponds to a series of holes in the landscape elsewhere. Manufacturers typically use a mined mineral called gypsum to make drywall. However, the Sulfur Cycle drywall is not gypsum—rather, it is a synthetic compound composed of materials from unexpected sources. A process called flue-gas desulfurization produces this synthetic compound. Flue-gas desulfurization involves passing the noxious emissions of coal-burning power plants through a “scrubber” which chemically binds sulfur dioxide with a limestone slurry, thereby diverting the sulfur from the emissions and into a byproduct: synthetic gypsum. The six tons of synthetic gypsum drywall of Sulfur Cycle collectively contain a single ton of sulfur derived from mined coal.
Peterman’s sculptural presentation of Sulfur Cycle’s synthetic gypsum drywall in 1994 prompted museum visitors to consider the origins of the material and its use. With another aspect of his project—a permit purchased from the Chicago Board of Trade—Peterman engaged the political and economic system that brought the synthetic drywall into existence. In the 1990s, a market-based pollution control initiative known as the Acid Rain Program was created by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and administered by the Chicago Board of Trade. This program used a system of credits to incentivize energy utilities to install scrubbers on their smokestacks, among other measures. Peterman participated in this program by purchasing a permit, technically called a sulfur emission right, that legally authorized him to emit one ton of sulfur dioxide. That said, Peterman’s intention in purchasing this permit was never to emit any sulfur. Rather, he allowed the permit to expire in 2001. With this gesture, Peterman prevented one ton of sulfur from entering the atmosphere. By displaying the permit as artwork, he called attention to this novel and questionable regulatory system that empowered fossil-fuel companies to continue soiling the atmosphere by turning pollution into a new, marketable commodity. To appreciate Peterman’s critical engagement with this program, a basic understanding of the overall scheme is necessary. What follows is a brief account of acid rain and its control.
When anthropogenic activity disrupts the environmental sulfur cycle—from which Peterman borrows the title for his artwork—the result is acid rain. The environment is capable of recycling a certain amount of sulfur from sources such as volcanic activity with little adverse ecological impact; in fact, the environmental sulfur cycle is an essential function of many ecosystems. However, when emissions from coal-burning power plants, among other sources, carry massive amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, atmospheric water vapor is dangerously acidified and rains back down to earth often hundreds of miles from the emission source. The detrimental effect of acid rain on the environment was not immediately apparent upon its initial discovery; rather it was more consistent with what environmental scholar Rob Nixon calls slow violence—“a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction, that is dispersed across space and time, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Indeed, only after decades of acid rain did scientists begin to notice biodiversity loss in ecosystems such as forests, rivers, and lakes, as well as deleterious health effects to humans.
Throughout the 1960s and seventies, the prevailing strategy of activists addressing environmental issues like acid rain was to draft legislation that directly regulated pollution, pass it into law, and establish groups to sue companies that broke the rules. In fact, one such group, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), had the unofficial slogan “sue the bastards.” But these legislative victories—including the Clean Air Act (1963), Clean Water Act (1972), Endangered Species Act (1973), and the Superfund law (1980), among many others—were only achievable in a political climate where environmental regulation was accomplished as a bipartisan effort. That said, with the ascendance of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, this golden age of environmental law came to an end. Reagan ushered in the era of neoliberalism wherein governmental regulations of any kind on the private sector were anathema. For instance, Reagan’s neoliberal “pro-business” administration significantly rolled back environmental regulations enacted by the EPA and stonewalled the scientific consensus on acid rain. Some environmental groups adapted to this new political climate by adopting similarly “pro-business” approaches. For example, in the mid-1980s the EDF shifted their “sue the bastards” strategy; as political theorist Naomi Klein notes, “the EDF’s new goal became: ‘create markets for the bastards’”—and so they did.
One of George H. W. Bush’s promises in his winning 1988 presidential campaign was to take action on acid rain by looking ‘‘to the marketplace for innovative solutions.’’ While the proven conventional approach would have been to impose direct regulations on sulfur dioxide emissions, after close to a decade of neoliberal free-market fundamentalism ushered in by Reagan, many legislators did not think this was politically feasible. Instead, in consultation with the EDF, Bush signed into law the Clean Air Act of 1990, which included a plan for the first large-scale emissions trading market in history: the Acid Rain Program.
The Acid Rain Program was an emissions trading system, now popularly known as a “cap-and-trade” program, which primarily targeted coal-burning power plants such as the Bailly Generating Station in Burns Harbor, Indiana, which Peterman visited and photographed while conducting research for Sulfur Cycle. The program established an annual sulfur dioxide emissions allowance for polluters, measured in tons. If the polluters exceeded their allowance in a given year, they had to purchase additional emissions permits either from the Chicago Board of Trade or from other polluters. If they managed to end the year under their annual emissions allowance, perhaps by reducing their emissions through flue-gas desulfurization and producing synthetic gypsum, they could either save or sell unused permits to other polluters on the market. The Acid Rain Program aligned with neoliberal free-market ideology by creating an economic incentive to reduce emissions rather than directly regulating them. And it worked—sort of. Since the 1980s, sulfur dioxide emissions in the United States have decreased by 39%. However, a comparable direct regulation policy in Europe helped reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 78% in the same timeframe. It seems that despite its much-touted “success,” the Acid Rain Program was comparatively a literal half-measure. Moreover, even with the reduction in emissions and consequent reduction in rain acidity in the United States, sensitive ecosystems in afflicted regions have already suffered decades of acid rain and have a reduced capacity to handle additional pollution. Hence, further reductions remain necessary.
As I have shown, Peterman’s Sulfur Cycle and the Acid Rain Program intersect in two ways. The six tons of synthetic gypsum drywall—a byproduct of this program—collectively contain one ton of sulfur, which acts as “a reservoir of displaced pollution,” according to Peterman. His choice to present the Sulfur Cycle drywall unaltered, in a manner reminiscent of how it would be found at a construction site, and his intention for it to be utilized beyond the original exhibition in the construction of the museum’s new building highlight the very commonness of this material and its use value. With his simple display, Peterman prompted a consideration of how individuals and institutions implicate themselves in the entangled ecological, economic, and political systems in which the material is entrenched by consuming it. Mirroring the single ton of sulfur contained in the drywall, Peterman’s second engagement with the Acid Rain Program was his purchase of a one-ton sulfur emissions permit from the sulfur allowance trading market. By purchasing this permit—of which there were only a set amount—with the intention of allowing it to expire, Peterman prevented fossil-fuel companies from acquiring his one-ton emission right. In essence, Peterman subverted this system by transforming its complex program of economic incentives into a simple program of direct pollution prevention, at least for the one ton of sulfur represented by his permit.
In the gallery guide produced for the 1994 presentation, Peterman wrote, “[i]n this exhibition, one won’t find a finished artwork, but an introduction to an ongoing discussion and negotiation.” Twenty-six years after Peterman first showed Sulfur Cycle at the MCA, the debate over what to do about environmental degradation continues. Much has changed with our collective understanding of the existential threats posed by pollution, and yet little has changed in policy. While the Acid Rain Program and other factors have somewhat reduced sulfur dioxide pollution, scientists have come to understand that another pollutant from burning fossil fuels—carbon dioxide—is detrimental to the environment on a far greater scale. The global threat of climate change dwarfs the regional threats of acid rain. While Sulfur Cycle does not directly allude to carbon emissions or climate change, the particular problem of sulfur pollution is part of the broader issue of fossil-fuel pollution. What’s more, the Acid Rain Program proved to be a highly influential, if ethically questionable and questionably effective, model for dealing with environmental issues such as climate change. In fact, while negotiating the United Nations (UN) climate treaty that would become the Kyoto Protocol, President Bill Clinton’s administration advocated for the creation of an international carbon trading system modeled on the Acid Rain Program. Despite the fact that the United States ultimately failed to ratify the Kyoto agreement, Europe implemented a large-scale carbon market administered by the United Nations.
Apart from concerns over the effectiveness of such markets, the UN carbon market has bolstered a dubious submarket for carbon-offset projects. Approved carbon-offset projects—such as hydroelectric dams, tree plantations, and biodiesel production—earn companies carbon credits by either removing carbon from the atmosphere or replacing “dirty” industrial operations with “green” alternatives. Companies with carbon-offset projects can sell the credits they earn on the UN market to transnational corporations that later use them to offset their own carbon emissions. The problem is that this system incentivizes companies to “scour biologically rich but economically poor nations like Papua New Guinea, Ecuador, and Congo,” as Klein explains, in search of land for projects that can generate these lucrative credits. For instance, a company could purchase an inexpensive tract of land in order to establish a tree plantation or reclassify an old growth forest as a offset project, and in the process violently displace and dispossess Indigenous peoples and other situated populations who live and rely on this land, all in the name of “green” development. As “green” as they might appear, through the UN’s carbon credit system developments like these have become, as Klein notes, “an extension of a dirty power plant on the other side of the planet, attached by invisible financial transactions.”
Indeed, the condition of invisibility seems to permeate the fossil-fuel industrial complex, and intentionally so. Companies hide fossil-fuel infrastructure in locations out of sight of wealthier and whiter urban and suburban districts, which are often home to poorer Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, fossil-fuel emissions invisibly suffuse the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and other pollutants; warming the planet, acidifying water, and poisoning the air we breathe—these facts are especially true for marginalized communities who suffer from disproportionate levels of pollution. Moreover, the built environment covertly contains many fossil fuel products and byproducts, as we see with the coal-derived synthetic gypsum drywall of Peterman’s Sulfur Cycle. However, perhaps most insidiously, fossil-fuel industries wield their political influence behind the scenes to sway environmental policy in their favor, as they did with the Acid Rain Program and more recently with carbon emissions regulation.
In the early stages of planning Dan Peterman: Sulfur Cycle 2.0, Peterman and I intended to “find” his missing artwork. However, recognizing this condition of invisibility, we realized that ultimately it did not matter whether Sulfur Cycle had disappeared into the walls of the MCA or into a landfill somewhere unknown. As Peterman noted in the gallery guide for the original exhibition, between the sculptural presentation of synthetic gypsum drywall and his emissions permit, sulfur “remains abstractly represented and invisible”—the sulfur of Sulfur Cycle was already invisible. As well, the disappearance of the drywall mirrors the way that this construction material commonly disappears into the built environment—and the way that fossil fuels invisibly pervade our lives generally. The project was less about the specific synthetic gypsum drywall boards and more about the entangled economic, environmental, and political implications of the material. That being said, in organizing the 2021 exhibition, our driving question became how to make an exhibition about an artwork that might not be there.
Peterman decided on a process akin to a small-scale mining operation, alluding to the source of the coal-derived content of Sulfur Cycle. In December 2020, Peterman, along with a team of preparators, excavated the walls of the MCA, cutting near-identical rectangular holes at random across the gallery walls.
With this process, Peterman searched for his original artwork while revealing the hidden materiality of the museum building. For Peterman, the museum is not just an archive of artworks; it also holds in its architecture an archive of material evidence that attests to the strange and complex ways that capitalism reorganizes nature—such as the creation of a market for trading atmospheric sulfur. Following the excavation, Peterman stacked the cutout wall samples atop one another to create a new sculpture, Sulfur Cycle 2.0 (2020), which resembles the drywall stacks from the original Sulfur Cycle presentation and creates a perspectival shift that enables viewers to see the material content of the museum’s walls.
In the exhibition, the gallery lights periodically dim to reveal a projection of Peterman’s video work Endless Loader (2019), which he shot at a mining museum located in an inactive coal mine in Pennsylvania. The video shows a crab-like machine whose only function was to ceaselessly load mined coal onto a conveyor belt, alluding to extractive capitalism's insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. The video offers a glimpse into the usually unseen industrial processes involved in coal mining, connecting the synthetic gypsum of Sulfur Cycle back to its origin in the belly of the earth. Moreover, the slow rhythmic cycling of the gallery lights and video is quietly suggestive of the interwoven cycles of production and consumption, presence and absence, and emission and absorption, which set the contextual ground for Peterman’s Sulfur Cycle project as a whole.
Sulfur Cycle, like much of Peterman’s artwork, is an exercise in the close reading of materials. By focusing on something so seemingly mundane as synthetic gypsum drywall, we see how it was born from a historic intersection of ecological crisis, fossil-fuel industry, and neoliberal politics that resulted in the Acid Rain Program and set a major (if problematic) policy precedent for how governmental bodies address carbon emissions and the resulting global climate crisis today. Peterman’s project further prompts us to consider how fossil-fuel derived products implicate individual and institutional consumers in systems that adversely affect everyone through pollution and climate change, but are particularly harmful to marginalized communities. In Sulfur Cycle 2.0, with his characteristic subtlety, Peterman revisits a project he initiated 26 years earlier and sheds some light on an opaque system of environmental degradation, helping us to see it for what it is.
- For more information on Experimental Station, see experimentalstation.org/history.
- Dan Peterman and Lynne Warren. Options 48: Dan Peterman. Chicago, IL: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994
- Dan Peterman and Lynne Warren. Options 48: Dan Peterman. Chicago, IL: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994.
- Lucy Lippard, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, p. 10.
- The Chicago Board of Trade administered the pollution rights trading program—the first of its kind—on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency.
- The problem of acid rain began to enter public consciousness following a 1972 report in Science from ecologists Gene E. Likens and F. Herbert Bormann, who observed that rain in parts of the northeastern United States and Sweden had increased in acidity at a rate of 100 to 1,000 times normal levels. science.sciencemag.org/content/184/4142/1176.
- As The New York Times reported, normal rain has an acidity equivalent to that of a potato, but the rain observed by Likins and Bormann had acidity equivalent to a tomato, and in extreme cases, to that of lemon juice. nytimes.com/1974/06/13/archives/acid-in-rain-found-up-sharply-in-east-smoke-curb-cited-acid-in-rain.html.
- Additionally, a 1984 congressional report concluded that, at that time, as many as 50,000 people were dying prematurely every year in the United States and Canada due to the adverse health effects of acid rain and other transported air pollutants. govinfo.library.unt.edu/ota/Ota_4/DATA/1984/8401.PDF.
- Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, 201.
- Fredrickson, Leif, Christopher Sellers, Lindsey Dillon, Jennifer Liss Ohayon, Nicholas Shapiro, Marianne Sullivan, Stephen Bocking, et al. “History of US Presidential Assaults on Modern Environmental Health Protection.” American Journal of Public Health 108, no. S2 (2018). https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2018.304396.
- Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, 207.
- Paul L. Joskow and Richard Schmalensee, "The Political Economy of Market‐Based Environmental Policy: The U.S. Acid Rain Program." The Journal of Law & Economics 41, no. 1 (1998): 37–84. Accessed December 3, 2020. doi:10.1086/467384.
- Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, 208.
- See "Assessment of the Effectiveness of European Air Quality Policies and Measures," ec.europa.eu/environment/archives/cafe/activities/pdf/case_study1.pdf.
- See blog.yalebooks.com/2016/05/04/discovery-acid-rain/.
- Dan Peterman and Lynne Warren. Options 48: Dan Peterman. Chicago, IL: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994.
- Dan Peterman and Lynne Warren. Options 48: Dan Peterman. Chicago, IL: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994.
- Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, 188.
- See propublica.org/article/cap-and-trade-is-supposed-to-solve-climate-change-but-oil-and-gas-company-emissions-are-up.
- Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, 190.
- See Amy Miller’s documentary The Carbon Rush for more information on the insidious consequences of the carbon offset market. For example, in Minas Gerais, Brazil, massive eucalyptus monoculture plantations earn companies carbon credits while disrupting local livelihoods by destroying savannah ecosystems, which historically provided sustenance in the form of fruit and space for cattle. Additionally, herbicide use and disruption of the water table caused by large-scale eucalyptus farms render traditional agriculture in areas surrounding the plantations nonviable. What's worse is companies that run the plantations, such as Vallourec & Mannesmann Tubes, cut off land access to locals, using private security forces to intimidate, fine, and even kill locals in order to maintain control of the land.
- Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, 224.
- One example is the so-called “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which is primarily home to Black people who live in close proximity to fossil-fuel infrastructure and chemical plants. Cancer Alley gained new notoriety this year for having some of the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths in the United States due to the high levels of air pollution in the area, which has led to high rates of preexisting respiratory illness. See propublica.org/article/new-research-shows-disproportionate-rate-of-coronavirus-deaths-in-polluted-areas.
- For more information on what Environmental Justice scholar Steve Lerner terms “sacrifice zones,” see Lerner, Steve. Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: MIT Press, 2010.
- Special thanks are due to Preparator Michael Collyer and his team for their tireless work on this project.
- For more information on how fossil-fuel industry has adversely affected communities in Chicago, see southsideweekly.com/dumping-dirty-industry-south-side-environmental-justice.