Talk: Dan Peterman on Sulfur Cycle 2.0

Chicago artist Dan Peterman’s latest exhibition at the MCA digs below the surface of the gallery walls to reveal parts of the museum itself built from fossil fuels. The exhibition traces specific materials across time while also considering the broader environmental and economic systems at play.

Chicago artist Dan Peterman’s latest exhibition at the MCA digs below the surface of the gallery walls to reveal parts of the museum itself built from fossil fuels. The exhibition traces specific materials across time while also considering the broader environmental and economic systems at play.

For this talk, Peterman is joined in conversation with exhibition curator Jack Schneider as they take us on a journey to discover the impact of fossil fuels in the daily environments we occupy. The discussion will trace the path of Peterman’s work and thinking on this project from the original Sulfur Cycle presentation at the MCA in 1994 toward the current presentation 26 years later.

MCA Talks highlight cutting-edge thinking and contemporary art practices across disciplines. This presentation is organized by exhibition curator Jack Schneider, with the Performance and Public Practice team.

This talk was live streamed from the gallery on March 30, 2021.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JACK SCHNEIDER: Hello, and welcome. My name is Jack Schneider, curatorial assistant here at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Today, I’m thrilled to be joined by artist Dan Peterman to discuss his current exhibition at the museum, Sulfur Cycle 2.0, which is on view through March 1st 2022.

The museum is open, so you might hear some rustling and bustling in the background. By way of introduction, Dan, you, since the mid 1980s, have combined innovative strategies of local engagement, and activism, with national, and international art projects, exhibitions, and installations. You explore intersections of art and ecology, frequently focusing on networks of recycled or discarded materials, that function interchangeably as stockpiles, sculpture, functional objects, and critiques of environmental oversight and neglect. Does that sound accurate?

DAN PETERMAN: That sounds pretty good. Familiar, at least.

JACK SCHNEIDER: I got it from your website, so I hope it’s still current. You’re no stranger to the MCA. You have numerous artworks in our permanent collection, including the benches that we’re sitting on now. This is also Dan’s third solo exhibition at the museum. It was preceded by Plastic Economies in 2004, and Options 48, in 1994. So we’re going to be discussing the latter to some extent today, because the current exhibition is a direct response to, and in some sense, a continuation of the 1994 exhibit.

Apart from the MCA, Peterman has exhibited at venues, such as Documenta 14, the Venice Biennial, Kunsthall Basel, and the Smart Museum of Art, among many others. So Dan, thank you for being here.

DAN PETERMAN: It’s great to be here, Jack, thank you.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Yes, so to start, I want to just explain a little bit for viewers the origin of this project that we’re kind of sitting in right now. So you originally presented a multimedia artwork, titled Sulfur Cycle at the MCA in 1994, and this was part of the Options 48 exhibition, which I’ll note was curated by Lynn Warren, who we love, and just retired from the MCA, after an amazing 30 year career here, as a curator.

The project Sulfur Cycle in 1994 included in the installation six one ton stacks of drywall that was sort of presented on pallets, in a manner reminiscent of how you would find them at a construction site. This was no coincidence, of course, this was a sort of intentional decision, because concurrent to the exhibition, the MCA was in the midst of building their new building. So the 1994 project was one of the final artworks to be shown at the MCA’s old building which is four blocks away, and the project was really kind of directly responding to this transitory moment in the institution’s history.

So your intention for the drywall, after the close of the exhibition in the old building, was for the drywall to be used in the construction of the new building. And you went so far as to include, also, a sort of architectural model of the fourth floor of the museum in the 1994 exhibition, indicating in red, on that architectural model, where the drywall should be installed. And where we’re sitting today, on the fourth floor of the MCA and the Turner galleries, is one of the spaces that you specified for the drywall to be installed.

So in your words, this artwork, Sulfur Cycle, was to become permanently, yet invisibly on display at the MCA. So that’s kind of a brief introduction to this project. But to begin our discussion, I’m wondering if you could just tell us about what interested you in this drywall you presented, as part of Sulfur Cycle.

DAN PETERMAN: And I also would like to just acknowledge Lynn Warren as a curator of that regional project, that was a sprawling multidimensional set of concepts, and kind of systems based project that was looking broadly at ecological factors, market trading factors, industrial networks, and the museum, and she was a great curator. A kind of—

JACK SCHNEIDER: Absolutely.

DAN PETERMAN: —a partner in helping that project keep moving ahead, stay very open and flexible, and exploratory. And so I just want to acknowledge that, as well, as an institution that allowed her to—

JACK SCHNEIDER: I hope she’s watching. Lynn, if you’re out there.

DAN PETERMAN: But to your question about specifically the drywall, this was a complicated kind of material network and I was paying attention to a lot of different materials, a lot of different kinds of systems, recycling systems, market systems, waste. And I developed an awareness of what was going on in relation to the wallboard, as it connected to coal burning energy power plants, and that there was a connection between gypsum and synthetic gypsum, and the filtration of sulfur, that was hazardous emission being released into the environment.

And so this technology around synthetic gypsum, as opposed to mining it, and building your drywall, this took a byproduct of the coal burning industry, filtered sulfur, out of the emissions that would have otherwise been released into the atmosphere, and locked it chemically right into a synthetic gypsum. It becomes a part of the chemistry of gypsum. The limestone slurry captures the sulfur, it creates a synthetic, man-made, source of gypsum. And it was being produced in the Chicago area by USG, as a wallboard.

And so to me, it was really fascinating to have this completely invisible kind of backstory of sulfur, and sulfur of course, without going too far into detail, is the main culprit in the acid rain phenomena that some of us will remember from the past. A direct result of burning coal is that you create sulfuric acid in the environment that can cause lots of damage, so filtering it out was important. So anyway, that whole dialogue was really fascinating to me. The industries that were involved, the material networks, the energy flows. We’re also embedded in it as consumers of electricity, builders of homes, whatever it is. And so that material really became a focus.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Absolutely. And I think that was what was one of the things that was so surprising to me, when you were first telling me about this. I had no idea that some drywall was, in part, derived from fossil fuels. That was a totally new concept to me. And I think you mentioned the other day that now something like 30% of all of the drywall industry is synthetic gypsum drywall, so it really is— I think it was a little more novel in the mid 90s, when you made this project, but now it’s sort of become this much more common material, which is interesting.

DAN PETERMAN: Right, it was more like a pilot project at the time, and the Chicago area, or this part of the Great Lakes area, had all of these elements in play, and they didn’t have wide awareness, or wide exposure. I think it was still a kind of time where, culturally, we were in a place where people were figuring out what recycled content meant, and you know I think the wallboard industry was reluctant to say, oh we have a pollution by-product we’re embedding in your walls. And so there was, I think, a reason to kind of say, no, we’re not going to reveal this publicly. And it wasn’t a secret, it’s not that it was a secret.

JACK SCHNEIDER: But it’s not like you’re going to the store, buying drywall, and it’s like slapped on it, like, "sulfur content derived from coal," it’s sort of meant to a certain degree to be hidden from view, a little bit, by design.

DAN PETERMAN: Right, yeah, you know, so I was interested in— my attitude was much more of that these kind of back stories, and the extended chain of consequences, unintended consequences, those are things that we all, like we culturally, broadly, need to understand more.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Right, right—

DAN PETERMAN: We have an awareness of, and yeah.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Absolutely. And I think that this project very much does that. I mean, you know, I had never considered drywall as closely, or as or as deeply as I had, until I started— your project was sort of this catalyst for me to learn about all this stuff. And I think that that’s really important. And you come to it, I think I can imagine people coming to this 1994 exhibition seeing these stacks of drywall, maybe not even realizing that their art. It’s just so common, this material, it’s sort of like, oh this is here, maybe they’re building a new gallery, or something.

DAN PETERMAN: Right.

JACK SCHNEIDER: But then that sort of strangeness of it being there, in a museum, presented as artwork, I think, kind of asks people to pay closer attention to it. And then once you get in it, and then with the sort of explanatory text, and the other elements of the project, that we’ll get to in a minute, you realize that this super common, super simple material is really embroiled in all these kind of strange economic systems. Politically inflected economic systems.

So I’m wondering, and it is this sort of multimedia project, the drywall stacks were one element of it, but there was another element of the project, which sort of engaged the economic system that the synthetic gypsum drywall was a part of. So I’m wondering if you could talk about this.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah, the EPA, the Board of Trade, and yeah, at the same time as this industrial filtration, related to emission of coal, was going on also as a response to the pollution aspect of sulfur from burning coal, the Environmental Protection Agency worked with the Chicago Board of Trade to create the first market trading rights. A pollution trading rights marketplace.

And so, of course, there was another way to think about tonnage of sulfur, in this coal burning in industry, and the environmental impact of it, in another kind of response. Capturing it into drywall was one way. A kind of cap and trade market experiment was another way. And you know, it’s been explored with a lot of different materials, and different pollution concepts, and still plays out. It was hard to see how successful this kind of market might be, but at the time of this project, it was the first market anywhere in the world, and as a publicly administered market, I could participate.

I could buy a ton of sulfur, along with all of the coal burning utilities that are basically the consumers of these rights to emit. I could also buy a few tons of the right to emit the sulfur into the atmosphere, even though I had no capacity for actually doing it. And because the market created a cap on the total number, the tons that I owned, you know they were in my account they were in my control, and I could trade them, I could sell them, I could do whatever I could figure out what to do with them. But eventually they would expire, and those tons would have been prevented from emission.

So there was a way of thinking about the ton of sulfur in the gallery, that was collectively contained in the drywall, and also thinking about the tons of sulfur that were in my account with the EPA, that I had purchased.

JACK SCHNEIDER: And everything sort of mirroring there between—

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah, a really interesting connection. And for me, this way of accessing these economies and these systems, and trying to figure out like, where is the meaning here? How do I make sense of this capacity to connect in a different way, rather than just being kind of a blind consumer of energy? How can I actively participate, and think through, like where—

JACK SCHNEIDER: Absolutely.

DAN PETERMAN: Where does meaning lie in these systems?

JACK SCHNEIDER: Yeah, and I think I really admire that, because I think having that ton of sulfur that was in the gallery— there was one ton of sulfur within the six tons of drywall that was presented— you know is, I think, is a little closer to what a artist typically does, which is sort of create an object that goes into a museum. But then, when you sort of turn around, and you say, actually I can engage in this real economic system, and actually prevent a certain number of tons from being polluted. At that level, it becomes, it exceeds the boundaries of the museums walls, and I think kind of expands what art can do.

And you actually, you mentioned, the sort of expiration date of these things. So the sulfur allowance permits that you purchase expired in 2001, and you deliberately allowed this to happen, right?

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah.

JACK SCHNEIDER: So I think what’s really brilliant about this is, you’re taking the acid rain program, the sulfur allowance trading market, which is this really kind of flawed, in my opinion, and a kind of complex economic system of incentives, supposedly to sort of reduce pollution, but you took that system, and buy buying these permits, with the intention of allowing them to expire, you took this system of incentives, and turned it into actually a really simple system of just, like, direct pollution prevention. At least for the couple tons of sulfur that you purchased permits for.

DAN PETERMAN: But it was interesting. There’s something within that— it wasn’t just a kind of activist gesture, like I bought these tons, they’re not going to be released, and so therefore, you know, I deserve a pat on the back for that. It was participating in a system, where my purchase of like $1,200 worth of these things was so trivial, it was rounded off to zero in the post auction summary.

And you know that was also something that I was wrestling with, like that question of where does meaning lie, to recognize that I was participating in actually engaging in controlling certain tons, having a consequence, but that consequence rounded off to zero, even because—

JACK SCHNEIDER: Whole agencies are probably buying, like hundreds of thousands of tons of these rights, and you’re buying a couple.

DAN PETERMAN: Right.

JACK SCHNEIDER: But I think what I would say, and I think that is difficult, is that by engaging the system, you’re drawing attention to it. So that’s kind of like the gesture. You’re drawing attention to this very bizarre system, and I think by buying it with the intention of allowing it to expire, for me, or I guess this is a question for you, but I kind of read a criticality in that of the system overall. It’s almost like you’re subverting it. So I’m wondering like, what is your opinion of this type of environmental regulation? The kind of cap and trade of it all.

DAN PETERMAN: Well, I think there are pros and cons, and I think the full answer is probably still yet to be determined. The free market is not necessarily the easy to determine player in environmental ethics. But certain tools may have an effect. Like this market would have been different had there been a major corporation stepping in to buy these, to really influence the market, to buy this tonnage, and to leave the coal burning industry scrambling a little bit more. Like how do we deal with this? It really becomes a marketplace, and there are more people with the kind of ethical incentive to do what to do what I did, it would have— the market mechanism would have acted quite differently, where I was a trivial effect.

It could have been different, like it does open up. The market does open up certain possibilities. But it also leaves things. It wasn’t a very active and effective market, other than the sense that it did cap. That the government could set the limit and then allow the market to operate underneath that cap, and that cap did have a step down of total quantity. So I think it’s really questionable how well the market mechanism worked. I think the cap part of it, as long as that was actually enforced, had a positive effect.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Well, I think too, I mean from the reading I’ve done on it, there was a lot of criticism from environmental activists at the time, because, as you said, the sort of acid rain program, it was the pilot. It was the first large scale kind of a national scale cap and trade program for Pollution control I think in history. And what this was replacing— what this style of environmental regulation was replacing was, what some called command and control— this was sort of the negative phrase for it— but command and control style environmental regulation that was popular throughout the 60’s and 70’s.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah.

JACK SCHNEIDER: From the sort of founding of the EPA, where it was like, we see an issue happening with pollution, we’re going to directly regulate it. So we’re going to see somebody doing something wrong, we’re going to tell them they can’t do it.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Very simple. And then through these weird, kind of like neoliberal, free market fundamentalist, ideas it was like, no, actually we should use the market to control pollution, which frankly I mean, it is complicated. It’s interesting, but I think the overarching sort of criticism of it, from environmentalists, is that you would be giving these companies like a license to kill. If that makes sense. You’re like, continue polluting, we’re just going to put this little weird mechanism in place.

DAN PETERMAN: There’s a lot of room to maneuver underneath that cap. You know you’re given a certain amount of freedom to still run facilities the way you want to. You could still have hot spots, as they say. It was totally open to certain sites really being very polluted, because the industry could make the choice to say, well, we’re building a new facility here, we’ll have more sophisticated pollution controls, but we still want to operate this old facility that is causing a lot of sulfur fallout, or other kinds of pollution.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Yeah, yeah. So I mean it’s definitely complicated, but I think it’s interesting to think about, especially now as you know, carbon emissions are really the issue that people are talking about in terms of environmental issues, and the acid rain program cap and trade has become this sort of historical precedent that a lot of politicians are pointing to, as like this is what we need to do with carbon.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah.

JACK SCHNEIDER: You know, and there’s a lot of criticisms about this on either side of the argument. But I want to shift a little bit, and we can always come back to this.

DAN PETERMAN: Well, I wanted to just say, one thing that I think it is useful to kind of look at what the relationship was of this pollution rights market, that was happening at simultaneously to the gypsum, the physical material of gypsum, filtering sulfur. Like these two parallel systems, both, directly looking at sulfur in the environment, and ways to deal with that.

JACK SCHNEIDER: They were related right? Like wasn’t the sequestering of sulfur into drywall, wasn’t that sort of directly these—

DAN PETERMAN: They’re both responses to the pollution effect of sulfur in the atmosphere, but they were different agencies, and very different strategies. The marketplace strategy, and the gypsum industry, for example, just found a source of sulfur. They weren’t activists. They weren’t involved in pollution control. Synthetic gypsum became a commodity, just simply like other materials that an industry might source could be a byproduct of something, as opposed to a naturally mined, you know, a virgin material. It was part of that kind of complexity of the world increasingly—

JACK SCHNEIDER: They realized they can make money off of a by-product.

DAN PETERMAN: By-products and systems that kind of loop and conserve, and sustain. It becomes part of the business model, even if it’s not something that’s fueled by a philosophical commitment.

JACK SCHNEIDER: For sure. Sure, sure, sure. Yeah.

DAN PETERMAN: So there’s some difference between that marketplace that was the environmental agency of the US government directly trying to impact that, and coal burners trying to reduce, using the filtration system, but that filtration originally was land-filled, and it then became a secondary kind of unintended, advantageous, consequence that it became a kind of feedstock for the drywall.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Interesting. So in 2019, when you and I first started talking about this project, and I’ll just say I mean when I went to your studio, I was fascinated to hear about this sort of artwork that invisibly resided in the walls of the building that I worked in. I think when we initially started talking about working on this project together, we thought it would be really important to, kind of like, find the original self recycled drywall panels that have been built into the building.

However pretty quickly what we did find was that the original sculpture, the original drywall panels from the 1994 presentation, had kind of disappeared. Neither the curatorial staff at the museum at the time, nor the general contractor of this building could confirm if, or where, the drywall kind of ended up in the building itself. So I’m wondering if you could talk about how you’re thinking about this project changed after this realization.

DAN PETERMAN: I don’t think it changed for me as much, as it changed for you, or for the museum. Kind of accustomed to tracking artwork, knowing where they are.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Right, right.

DAN PETERMAN: For me, I was aware, at the time, that the focus was on the one ton of sulfur, which even in the original exhibition you couldn’t see. You had access through the six stacks of drywall, and the six stacks of drywall felt, to me, like an installation, but not a sculpture, like those six stacks weren’t the artwork. Right, but the sulfur was in there, and again, a kind of fortuitous condition that this building was under construction, and this could be— those stacks of drywall could then find their way into this building, and kind of extend the movement of that one ton of sulfur.

For me, even though we had an idea where that drywall would be used, somewhere in these galleries, on these floors, it was, at the time, it wasn’t me saying where I want them to be, it was more the contractors saying, that size drywall we could use in here, because it’s a lower ceiling. It’s likely to be used here. And then I remember also thinking, OK now the exhibition is closing in the old museum, how active should I be in like watching it?

Get built into, and making sure and track? I decided to be assured, and confident, that it was happening, that it didn’t end up in a dumpster behind the museum. I don’t think there was much at risk of that. But that it did come to the museum, it was built in, and I didn’t really feel the need to verify, to scrutinize that process because in a way it was the ton is now moving into the walls of the museum, and we have an idea where it’s going, but we don’t know exactly. It’s a little bit analogous to the sulfur in the atmosphere too. Like, it’s not a precise kind of movement, or a delineation, or one ton versus another ton.

It’s part of, again, like seeking meaning is trying to figure out what do I know? What do I have access to? Knowing and seeing, and how can I figure that out? So I knew it was here,

JACK SCHNEIDER: Yeah.

DAN PETERMAN: I knew it was concretely here in the building, in the kind of atmosphere of the walls of the building. So I didn’t have the surprise factor later on that maybe the museum did, of like, hm if we start to revisit this piece, where is it again? And how do we start thinking about that?

JACK SCHNEIDER: Yeah, no, and I think for me, when we were first talking about this I think we wanted to treat, or at least I wanted to treat it, kind of as you noted, I wanted to treat Sulfur Cycle like a traditional artwork. You know something with like fixed boundaries, provenance, authorship, whatever. So it felt important to find these, like, where is the specific drywall. I think once we kind of realized that it had kind of become indeterminate, the location of it, it really opened up a new way of thinking about this work for me. Where it was not so much about these particular drywall boards, these particular drywall boards were really just representative examples.

So the artwork wasn’t— it wasn’t the six one ton stacks, it was— those are representative examples of something else, of the synthetic gypsum drywall that was sort of connected to these bizarre economic systems, as I said, sort of politically inflected economic systems. And then your, additionally, your kind of engagement within the market, the sulfur allowance trading market, like was the artwork. So I guess it was— I changed from thinking about it as a sculptural work really to more of a conceptual work.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah, yeah. But we did, at the same time, there is the material pathway to follow. So the one ton—

JACK SCHNEIDER: Conceptual work, but it’s very material.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah, the one ton is in these walls, and then kind of, the opportunity that arose to revisit this project was really meaningful to me, because it was in a sense ecologically active. Like it still was in— over time, meaning was changing, even what it meant in this building over time, in relation to these particular walls, was continuing to be active, and something that I wanted to explore, and not just reframe what the project was in 1994, but to think about what does it mean now? What kind of gestures you know carry meaning in relation to that?

But also recognize, ecologically, that picture is still in play. There’s still a lot of factors in the industrial system, in the environmental system, and in the trading markets, and in the kind of consumer end of the world, where the art museum is a consumer of drywall, just as I am in my home.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Right.

DAN PETERMAN: So I agree with you that it’s a kind of systems awareness that I think, over time even thinking about that, for me, has changed. For example, I know we’ve spoken a little bit about Timothy Morton, and his introduction of hyper objects, which was 10 years after the original project that I did, but actually that concept helped open some of my thinking about this project. This is a kind of approach to a hyper object.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Absolutely.

DAN PETERMAN: And the Sulfur is moving in these very interesting ways where, you can track it, but there is a lot of complexity around the scope, the boundaries, when it overlaps into something else. Like we can follow it as a kind of hyper object, but we never see it directly.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

DAN PETERMAN: We’re seeing it through walls, we’re seeing it through drywall.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Yeah, so, yeah. Yeah, I think that’s a perfect way to think about this. I think one of my favorite ways of kind of describing what a hyper object is is that you can— you know for sure it’s a thing, but you can’t point at it. It’s something that is diffuse. It’s something that exists within the system, that isn’t just an object within itself. A hyper object is— climate change is a hyper object. The weather is a hyper object. Sulfur pollution is a hyper object. You can’t point at it. It’s invisible, but it’s nonetheless very material, and it’s there, and you know it is.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah.

JACK SCHNEIDER: So I think it’s a really interesting way to think about and—

DAN PETERMAN: And you know, that became a tool for me to kind of reflect on like, oh I’m kind of a hyper object sculptor.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Totally.

DAN PETERMAN: Just by nature, like I was interested in things that I found different language for talking about, in relation to systems, and ecological networks, and economies, but it was often materials in motion and kind of extended boundaries, or exchanges that were going on, or a kind of balance of things, and you know I think it’s— maybe it’s a little linked to the benches we’re sitting on here, the accessories to an event project, and other projects I’ve done that deal with post consumer plastics.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Right.

DAN PETERMAN: Because what’s interested me in the plastics is similar, in the sense that it’s like the scale of the industry, and of the effect of an industry that produces so much kind of rapid use, and dispose of, materiality that the consequences are growing and they’re huge, and the impacts on oceans, but not only oceans. Of just kind of unbelievable quantity.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

DAN PETERMAN: So these were projects that were also kind of reflection, reflections on that. Like how do I capture it in a state, but not pose a solution, or not over-determined what it means to be working with recycled—

JACK SCHNEIDER: Sure.

DAN PETERMAN: —plastic, but to kind of open up some of that complexity in this reflection on, you know, extended economies, or networks.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Absolutely, and I think that’s what’s so brilliant about your work, is that there’s a sort of subtlety to it, right? Like in a lot of ways, it is this almost kind of matter of fact presentation of these materials, and it’s not at all didactic, you’re not telling people what to think about these things, you’re just sort of saying, hey, look at this really interesting— look at this material. In some cases as common as drywall, and like look at it a little deeper, think about it a little bit more, and then it sort of explodes into these really interesting narratives and histories and systems. And that’s really what I love about your work.

But while we’re kind of on this topic of invisibility, I wanted to kind of jump forward now and talk about the installation that we’re in now.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah.

JACK SCHNEIDER: When I was at your studio, a couple of years ago, and we were talking about this project, and revisiting it, I think one of the questions I asked you was how would you make an exhibition about this thing that’s diffuse, this thing that’s— that it really is kind of invisible to a certain extent. Like how would you make an exhibition that was engaging about something that we can’t exactly see?

So I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about how you came to this format, that we’re in now, this installation. All of these cuts around us, these cuts into the wall that have then been taken, these kind of excavated pieces, have been taken to create this new wall-work, which is called Sulfur Cycle 2.0. I’m wondering if you can just talk a little bit about how you settled on this format for readdressing Sulfur Cycle 27 years later.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah, well as you know, it was— there was an evolution of thought around this exhibition, and even around thinking what it meant to revisit a piece. Part of that I think is due to how rare that opportunity is, which is a little bit unfortunate. Within the art world, institutions to really revisit past projects and with some patience to see what emerges in that process of revisiting something. And so, on the one hand, I felt really fortunate to do that, but then I guess in terms of my thinking, you know, I always feel a kind of connection to, especially projects that open up a kind of ecological structure that I’m following, I tend to not put them away like write them off as done, finished, completed.

You know, the ideas, the core ideas of the projects, they stay with me. I read articles. I’m influenced by different things that allow me to adjust my thinking. This is one of those projects that really stayed lively for me, and with a lot of kind of spin-off aspects to it. There’s a lot of opportunity to kind of re-engage, I guess I felt that way. And you know, given a concrete opportunity here to revisit this piece in the museum and think about what had been— what had been neglected in the project, like in that invisibility.

How is that invisibility functioning? What was a resource in the fact that it was hard to grasp as a project, even though the art world is full of examples of conceptual gestures that get captured in a kind of descriptive contract, here’s what it is. So it wasn’t that it was impossible, but there was just something elusive in the way this was moving between material presence, visibility, the kind of ownership, the arc of the developing original project. All of that made for an interesting kind of complexity.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Absolutely.

DAN PETERMAN: So I think I also felt like a partner in a kind of revisiting of this project, which of course, looked at the walls, and we started this notion of well, how, should we do some sampling? Should we do some re-excavation? Should we try to look at the back sides of the drywall, and identify which sheets were where? And I think that idea evolved, for me, into what became this 2.0 structure, which was the physical mining, kind of using that notion of extraction, going back into the walls, going back to this view that we had in the first brochure, I don’t know if we can get that, showed the end of the sheet of drywall, like the actual gypsum content, and open up that viewpoint in the exhibition.

So you know we arrived at cutting these strips out, extracting them from the wall, reordering them, so we’re actually looking into the cross section of the wall, looking at the gypsum, as opposed to the finished surface. And so in the present, re-mining, excavating, in these walls, and then at the other end of the project, kind of book-ending the original project with this excavation in the walls, and then going back to an earlier excavation, which references the extraction of coal. The coal being the source where the sulfur emerges.

It was the mining of coal, the burning of coal, the capture of the sulfur, from the emission into the drywall, into the walls, and so on. This end, we’re recapturing the sulfur, and then we’re making this notion to the kind of endless extraction of touching the sulfur as a component of the coal that was the starting point.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Right, so it’s like this process of really excavating the walls mirrors the kind of origin of the coal content of these walls, which was mined from the earth. So it’s sort of this interesting marrying between where it originally came from, and where it is now. Kind of a reenactment, almost. But there’s another element of the insulation that I think very much sort of hints at this same thing, which is a video titled Endless Loader, which plays periodically on a loop during the exhibition. And we have a short clip to share with the viewers that we’ll play now.

DAN PETERMAN: So the Endless Loader, that’s the other side of the extraction process, the one going on in the walls here, and this reference to the extraction of coal. So it created a new kind of book-ended framework structure around the whole sulfur cycle project, and I think pointed at the endless quality of mining processes that extraction processes that, of course, aren’t endless, but we, for the most part, behave as if they’re endless. We use energy as if it’s coming forever, and so that, as a kind of origin point of the sulfur, you know, the whole sulfur equation, I found that to be a kind of powerful, both metaphorically, just sort of endless, endless machine.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Right, the dream of the endless machine.

DAN PETERMAN: A kind of a mythological creature that feeds the systems that we live in, and you know the burning of coal that follows that is still, we in this day and age globally are still struggling with coal, coal emissions, if not sulfur, certainly CO2 byproduct, but, you know, petrochemical culture, hydrocarbons in general. We don’t manage well, and the transition to something else is long and slow. And I think it’s still useful to see this kind of a structure, and to think about, really, like is it really endless? We still act as if it is.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Right, right. Absolutely. And it’s almost as if like— I think there’s a certain degree to which, even recycling, as an idea, was sort of presented as, it was presented as a sort of, maybe, cure to the kind of like— we had this fantasy of endless progress, endless consumption, et cetera, et cetera, that I think most people understand is just that, a fantasy. And I feel like maybe recycling itself was presented as a way to kind of continue this fantasy of endless consumption. Of endless progress.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah.

JACK SCHNEIDER: But I think, I mean it’s interesting. As somebody whose work is so historically tied up with looking at recycling, like where do you think— where do you think it’s landed us?

DAN PETERMAN: I think we’re still in a place where, at times, we’re really seeing the complexity of all of our material systems, and our energy cycles, and that one of the burdens of being an artist who works with recycling is the oversimplification that recycling is a solution. In most cases, it’s a kind of spin off trajectory, that may have very complex motivations of what industry is behind it, whose business is aided by it. What are the altruistic values that might be pushing it, and are they really looking long term? Are they truly sustainable?

So my interest is usually not that, oh there’s the solution, and now I can capture that as a solution, but instead try to find an engaging way to create a holding pattern, where you look, and you understand, and you may have an Avenue for feeling complicit in a system, but also have a kind of— to allow space for maybe a wonderment, or a fear, or whatever other qualities of encountering something that’s not working right. And yet I do that. And yet there’s something beautiful about this system, and I want to believe in this, and not in that.

There’s so many kind of human ideas about how we should live, and how we should work, and how our systems should work, and in that complexity, I find a lot of room to operate as an artist. Not as solutions, but in managing those narratives, and figuring out what are the points of access? To really see something, and think profoundly about what does this mean to me? You know, should it change its behavior? Should or shouldn’t? Questions of meaning.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Absolutely. And I think I have one last question for you before I think we’ll take a couple of questions from the audience. But I think it kind of ties into what you were just saying, and this is actually, this will be me asking you a question that you actually inadvertently asked yourself, when you wrote this artist statement 27 years ago as part of the 1994 brochure. So I’m reading your words.

"In this exhibition one won’t find a finished artwork, but instead an introduction to an ongoing discussion and negotiation." Indeed, here we are 27 years later still talking about it. "It will be fleshed out, so to speak, in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new building when the wall board from this installation is archived in the museum’s walls. But this won’t close the discussion. The emission rights presented here will not expire until the year 2001, until then, they remain transient, negotiable, marketable entities. Over time, perspectives on what this all means, what values are at stake within the context of the museum, or within society in general, are likely to change. What will be undeniable, however, is that the Sulfur will be there in the walls, and the permanent collection, one might say, and not in the atmosphere. How, after all, do we determine the meaning that lies in that?"

Right, so my question for you, and you alluded to this earlier, the kind of special circumstances of this exhibition being that you are able to revisit this project that you initiated 27 years ago. I’m wondering if there’s anything that’s changed for you in terms of what the meaning of the project was in 1994, and what it means to you now? It’s a big question.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

There are things that have come about through this process of envisioning, like you know, this revisit, and a kind of companion exhibition that I didn’t see. Like I didn’t know what it would feel like to go back. I never had a clear sense of here’s how to revisit this in the future, even though I had had a clear sense the conversation would continue, I didn’t have a handle on what this would mean as an artwork, or how it would kind of play out over time. But that it would be active.

And so in a way it’s a little bit of an evasion of the answer, but it was kind of, I think, built in that I wouldn’t know. I would have to learn down the road. You know, I would be here with the institution, figuring this out, or I would be outside with maybe an un-cooperative institution, that wasn’t engaged in— like I had no guarantees. But I had a kind of— the project was tethered to the building, and to the institution, and then that opening would be there.

So there are a lot of things that have changed, but it’s not a surprise that I’ve had to adjust, and kind of find unexpected qualities, like in opening up these walls, or arriving at the presence of making these cuts, and then a kind of secondary byproduct of that is creating an artifact that allows a new way to look at the walls. Like I had no concept of that.

JACK SCHNEIDER: You mean you didn’t plan in 1994 to have a show in 2021?

DAN PETERMAN: There was no plan. There also wasn’t a plan that a young curator would come in, and say look, I really want to revisit this and I want to talk, you know. I had no clue that Naomi Klein was going to develop the kind of critique of the emissions rights trading market, or again, like Timothy Morgan’s hyper objects, as something that then becomes part of my toolkit that allows me to think a little bit differently about what I’ve already been doing.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Absolutely.

DAN PETERMAN: So there are lots of examples like that, where I’m also following along, so there are a lot of things that changed for me.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Yeah, and I would say just what I find so interesting about this is that when you develop this project in 1994, as you said, both the kind of synthetic gypsum drywall, coal burning drives synthetic gypsum drywall, was sort of novel, as was the acid rain program, which I don’t even know if it had officially kicked into gear until the year after the exhibition 1995. So these are both really novel processes, and then looking at it again, almost three decades later, you can see that one, synthetic gypsum drywall has become so much more common, and then two, that the acid rain program has become this incredibly influential policy, essentially, in politics, and it’s something that people are looking to, as early as like I think in the 90s, Bill Clinton was saying like we need to do the same thing for carbon that we did with sulfur with the acid rain program.

So it was almost like, you know I don’t want to oversell it, but I think almost the project in 1994 was a little bit prescient in that regard, in kind of looking at these two things that really did end up becoming incredibly influential. Especially the acid rain program. So I think it’s really apt to revisit it in this moment now, where we still don’t know what the hell we’re going to do about carbon emissions globally. It’s still political stalemate of what to do, and one of the things that’s on the table is large scale cap and trade of carbon emissions. So I think revisiting a project like this that was dealing with that in such a subtle, and I think beautiful, way, now makes a lot of sense to me.

Should we take questions from the audience?

DAN PETERMAN: Sure.

JACK SCHNEIDER: And I have them texted to my phone. Thank you, Cameron, if you’re out there. So a question from Cameron, actually, is he’s wondering if the museum quote unquote— he used quotes— owns Sulfur Cycle in its collection, and if so, what does that look like? So I can answer this one, or you can answer this one.

DAN PETERMAN: I’ll answer brief version, but there’s two sides of the equation. I guess as an artist, to me, I always found it really fascinating that, somehow, we had not clarified. It wasn’t owned. The museum didn’t own this piece directly. There never was a contract. I was never paid for this being part of the permanent collection of the museum, for example. It was embedded in the walls.

And you know, I’ve been involved in a number of projects that have a certain amount of slippage, like in terms of how do you own this? Or why would you? Or things that have had a profile in the art world, that usually would confer, like this is an object of value in the art world, with an exhibition history and so forth. But I’ve also had things like that kind of slip back into just a container full of stuff. I’ve been really fascinated by some of those economic questions.

So I’ve been patient and open, over a long period of time, knowing there are some unresolved qualities here that are fundamental to the nature of this project, fundamental to Sulfur Cycle. You know, I’m going to at, least at some point down the road, knock on the door of the museum and say, hey, do you guys want to like revisit some of this? So I didn’t have a fixed position about what should happen, but I found it a really fascinating quality of the project that it had somehow slipped in between the standards that are normally so clear about who owns what, and is it a part of a collection, or is it? And this one had slipped into the walls, and existed in kind of a different place.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Well, and I think, that’s, in my opinion, that is a sign of a good artist. That’s one that’s making things that kind of challenge our systems for cataloging and archiving things, really. As we’ve been talking about, I think this whole time, that this is not, this is not a project that is summed up in a single object, as a traditional artwork. So I think it makes sense to a certain degree that it kind of has these slippages, or kind of slips in and out of systems, or our ability to kind of recognize it as an artwork, as such. Although, I do hope at some point, the museum will bring it in so to speak.

We have time for just one more question, and this is coming from the audience. Someone is wondering how this project Sulfur Cycle relates to your broader practice, your other works.

DAN PETERMAN: I think at the time that it developed it— there was a bit of a higher hurdle dealing with the complexity of the industrial— what was happening, and happening chemically, in the industry. It’s like there’s kind of a burden to have to understand this, and then you can begin to get a feel for what I’m doing as an artist in developing this project, this kind of constellation of things.

And so it always felt like a challenging project, like one that made total sense to me, that I felt really clear about pursuing this project. But it operated a little bit differently because of that— a kind of knowledge base to get into the project. So in that sense, it’s always been kind of a handful of a project, but something that has been very like, I guess all the projects, that have meant the most to me, there’s something that really comes out of a time and a place, and a kind of coming together, and it’s not something that I could just equip my studio, build it, and it’s done, and there’s the artwork.

You know, it’s really engaging in something with a lot of complexity over time, dependent on a lot of external things. And so I think this is one of those projects that really revealed that way of working. It was challenging in ways for me, and it sort of has continually been in that place. Like, you just have to go where the project takes you. You know?

JACK SCHNEIDER: Amazing. Amazing. Well, we’re about out of time, but I just want to thank you, Dan, so much for being here today for working on this project. I really— I’ve been an admirer of your work for years, so this is sort of a dream come true for me. So just thank you.

DAN PETERMAN: Yeah, well, thank you, Jack, and for your curatorial input in this whole project of revisiting this.

JACK SCHNEIDER: Yeah, of course, it was my pleasure.

DAN PETERMAN: It’s been great.

JACK SCHNEIDER: And thank you to the audience for attending. Thank you to our wonderful AV team. And the museum is open, as I mentioned at the top of the talk, this exhibition is open through October— sorry— March 1st 2022, so you have plenty of time to come see it, whenever you feel comfortable doing so. All right.

DAN PETERMAN: Thank you, everybody.