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Good protest art skewers its subject. Great protest art roasts everything in reach: the topic, the genre, even the audience. Then there is a third category of protest art, the sort of answer that doubles back on the question. The Environmental Performance Agency most definitely falls in this last category.
The show on view at Transformer might be a reaction to Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency whose excesses mark a steady beat in the daily news. And Pruitt makes an appearance in places in The Environmental Performance Agency (EPA): Department of Weedy Affairs, namely in the news clips fastened to a bulletin board on the wall. But no talking head has come close to the solution offered by the artists in this show: Replace Pruitt with a weed. Replace the entire agency administration with weeds.
“Elect Mugwort for U.S. EPA Science Advisory Council Campaign Sign” (2018) is exactly what it describes: a yard sign endorsing Artemisia vulgaris for an elected post. The piece—does it makes sense to describe these projects as discrete artworks? I’m not so sure—seems to suggest that our elected leaders are no better than the weeds that cause our allergies. But that’s hardly the point of the show, which is at least as enthusiastic about rewriting our framework for urban plant species as it is critical of Republicans.
The work of four artists (Catherine Grau, andrea haenggi, Ellie Irons, and Christopher Kennedy), the project features elements of social practice, institutional critique, and performance without falling neatly into any camp. “Department of Weedy Affairs Staff Directory” (2018), a series of framed pressed plants, elevates invasive species (Japanese hops; ragweed) to positions of authority (non-human resources specialist; deputy director assistant)—as if they were portraits on an org chart. “Urban Weeds Garden at 1067 Pacific Street” and “Embodied Science Experiment” (2018) are two photos of vacant lots with weeds bursting through cracked concrete to shoulder height; one features a figure, kneeling on all fours, with his or her head buried in a bouquet of unplanned urban greenery. The images showcase the routine operations of a dullish federal agency from a delightfully bonkers alternative America.
Of course, the point is to say that ours is the timeline that’s gone crazy, where elected officials have deleted all reference of climate change from official government platforms and rolled back dozens of common-sense standards for safeguarding our water and air. A good protest show might have made the point through biting satire. But Department of Weedy Affairs is rather joyful—or rather, it feels normal. The project imagines a nation that values and protects marginal ecosystems, which is to say, one that prioritizes environmental justice. A country in which this work is not just performed, but one in which it is boring—another given, like death and taxes.
Video is key to this show, which otherwise approximates a conference room with a mood board. (It’s unmistakably an art collective’s vision of a federal agency.) “Department of Weedy Affairs Training Sessions” (2018) features EPA artists (or agents) hugging patches of weeds and carving minimalist shapes out of asphalt. Consider the source material—the almost unbelievable real-world EPA—and nothing about The Environmental Performance Agency seems so far fetched.
At Transformer to June 16. 1404 P St. NW. Free. (202) 483-1102. transformerdc.org.