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Monday, September 30, 2013

Documerica, Then and Now

by Jessica Goldschmidt

With the U.N. pronouncements on climate change as a backdrop to this third week of the Next Wave Festival, it seems the time is right to do some soul-searching about when and how our country's relationship to the environment got so convoluted. Cue Documerica, a world premiere by string quartet ETHEL that takes as its inspiration an EPA project of the same name.

Documerica (the project, not the production) was a landmark collaboration between government and visual artists, echoing the Farm Security Administration's documentation of the Great Depression.

On the surface, Documerica was meant to portray what project director Giff Hamilton called "the human connection" to the environment. More than 70 photographers were contracted by the EPA over a period of six years (1971—1977) to photograph America's relationship to our land. Cities, farms, small towns, industrial hubs, and national parks: all were fodder for the artist's interpretation, and all were considered part of the American "environment."

Fundamentally though, Documerica was a way to introduce to the public and (on some level) justify the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency, which President Nixon had created by executive order in 1971 as a legislative home for the government's piecemeal environmental policies.

What began as a publicity initiative ended up a remarkable snapshot of American life, containing more than 15,000 photos. On the heels of July's retrospective exhibit at the National Archives, ETHEL commissioned eight American composers to interpret their own vision of our land. With projection design by Deborah Johnson (whose unearthly creations were featured heavily in last Spring's Planetarium) and direction by Steve Cosson (Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play), ETHEL's Documerica walks the frontier of new music, offering a multimedia vision of our nation's history.

Discover more Documerica images through the National Archive's online catalog. Tickets for ETHEL's Documerica available here.

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