Remnants of the era of industrialisation
Composed of scenes of coal power plants and their surrounding environments, GENERATIONS was filmed throughout the United States between 2017 and 2019. The film consists of twelve static single-shot tableaux depicting people doing everyday activities while living in the shadow of massive power generating stations.
Taking inspiration from George Inness’ 1856 painting, “The Lackawanna Valley”, which illustrates a scene at the beginning of the American Industrial Revolution (made possible by the invention of coal powered steam engines), the coal power plants in GENERATIONS stand as remnants of a fading era of industrialisation and as markers of the Anthropocene.
A synthesis of observational and constructed scenes, divided into precise durations of five minutes and totalling one hour, the structure and medium of GENERATIONS alludes to clockwork and industrial time while a series of present human moments unfold in ‘real time’. Landscapes featuring man-made environments alongside unaltered natural bodies of water and land evoke a geological timescale and the long-lasting impact coal extraction and energy generation will have on the future.
During the last two years of the Obama administration, 135 coal power plants were set to close, a potential boon for environmental and public health, but a loss of jobs in that sector. Research for GENERATIONS took place while Donald Trump campaigned on promises to resuscitate the coal industry and withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. Filming began as the Trump administration began work on broadly dismantling environmental protection regulations.
Now the future of these plants is uncertain. Will these power stations become relics of the past, or will they remain active monuments welcoming an unstoppable global catastrophe?
Interview with Lynne Siefert: “We rarely perceive industry as a presence in daily life”
GENERATIONS is your first long-form work. How did it come about?
The initial idea came in perhaps two ways. The first was an actual experience, and the second was discovering a painting that somewhat embodied that initial experience, which then became a guiding reference for how I continued to think about formal decisions that arose as I made the work.
While scouting for a different film in 2016, I decided to check out a small town I had heard was home to an active coal power plant. Expecting to find some small smoke stacks amid industrial buildings, I was totally awestruck by what I found instead: two gigantic cooling towers nestled right up to a quaint residential community. I had never seen this before – a whole community living literally in the shadow of a toxic power plant.
I watched perplexed as a man proceeded to shovel snow out of his driveway, never once casting a glance at the polluting behemoth that billowed a couple of miles behind him.
I began to wonder who this man was and about his relationship to the generating station. The questions were endless. This led to a series of other questions about the rest of the town and other frontline communities that also exist like this.
I was struck by the combination of the ordinary alongside the extraordinary, and how my mind tried to reconcile the two.
Industry is such an integral part of the makeup of the United States, but we rarely perceive it as an element in our local space or as a presence in daily life. Many of us tend to experience the source of our power consumption abstractly and at a remove. And if we do encounter it, we often experience it at a distance or through sensationalised media images. This moment, however, was the opposite of that; it was quotidian and uneventful but astonishing at the same time. It felt like a ‘curtain’ had been lifted, revealing something uncanny and unsettling.
I then thought about creating long format scenes from a fixed point of view that could evoke what I had just seen. And this reminded me of some paintings. I began looking at landscape, townscape, and pastoral paintings and that’s how I came across George Inness’s 1856 painting, “The Lackawanna Valley,” which greatly inspired the film.
What did you see in Inness’ painting? How are you connecting it to what you eventually shot for GENERATIONS?
In this work Inness depicts a scene at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the US. He shows a coal powered steam engine making its way through the hills and trees of the natural world, as well as through human-altered environments, such as a town in the background and a field of tree stumps in the foreground, while a figure in the painting sits and watches it all. His depiction of the beginning of industrialisation is compositionally balanced and serene, yet tonally critical in a subtle, almost ambiguous way. And it was this sense of ambiguity and contemplation surrounding the birth of industry that was reminiscent of what I experienced in real life, only now, instead of it being the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, it is the end. Or at least the end of the era of coal, which at the time I began the project, it seemed to be.
In Inness’ painting, there is a feeling of uncertainty that opens up endless possibilities for the viewer to project different narratives into the work. Seeing this helped clarify the emotional quality I wanted to convey in my static long shots. I started to see my tableaux as something akin to, but opposite from, the Inness painting. A kind of bookend to Inness’ portrayal of the arrival of industrialisation, only now we’ve had 250 years of innovation, “progress”, and human and environmental violation in-between.
I was interested in placing different elements of American identity together in a single unexpected space, to allow each scene to be filled with a multitude of stories and associations as we witness the intersection of competing aesthetics, ideologies, histories, and possible futures.
The painting also acted as somewhat of a guide when making other formal choices such as how I decided to colour the film and other elements of artifice that I included.
The twelve scenes in GENERATIONS are unedited. Each scene is five minutes. How are you thinking about duration?
I was thinking about the duration in different simultaneously occurring “timescales”.
For one, we have people existing in their own “real time” – meaning unedited, everyday actions playing out in all their mundane glory, seeing what would often be cut from a film or even from how and what we remember.
Next, I was thinking about “industrial time” or mechanical time and how twelve sets of five minutes make up a unit in a clock. I was interested in cutting exactly on the five-minute mark, despite whatever action was occurring in front of the lens. To me, this hard cut also alludes to “industrial time” and the indifference industry has to the environments and communities that have surrounded it throughout history.
Additionally, some of the scenes show natural bodies of water and unaltered landscapes combined with human-built structures. Although not figuring into the actual duration or structure of the film, I was hoping that these elements would also bring to mind a longer geological timescale, and the effects that fossil fuel burning and extraction will carry long into the future.
Overall, my hope was that the combination of these three senses of time could create a space for us to contemplate our deeper relationship to energy and ecology in the Anthropocene.
What was the process of selecting the plants?
Between 2017 and 2019, I researched and visited seventy-nine coal power plants throughout the United States and ended up selecting a total of seventeen to shoot and compose scenes of (I edited it down to twelve for the film, with a thirteenth accompanying the credits).
I sought to film in various regions and throughout different seasons, as I wanted to not only create diversity visually, but I also wanted to convey the continuous and far-reaching integration and dependency that coal power has in the US.
I chose the plant locations based on various factors. Since each scene is five minutes, it was important for me to compose at least a somewhat visually interesting shot. I looked for places where both the foreground and background could exist in the same focal plane as much as possible, to help heighten the close relationship between the people and the generating stations.
The scenes with people – are these observational?
Some were, where actions unfolded in front of the lens naturally. In others, I worked with members of the communities to stage the scenes, sometimes asking them to become “figures in the landscape” themselves.
For scenes without people, I selected some plants based on their polluting records and history. For example, I shot the Scherer Power Plant in Juliette, Georgia, which held the largest CO 2 emissions record in the US for many years. I filmed the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tennessee, which had the largest ever coal ash spill in the US and is regarded as one of the worst industrial accidents in the history of the United States.
Back when I was just conceiving the idea for this project, Obama was still in office and had just implemented new Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Scores of coal power plants were set to close as they could not afford to meet the new EPA regulations – it was apparent the industry was in decline. Back then, as I said before, I was thinking of this project, in part, as a bookend to the fading era of industrialisation. Therefore, plants that had set decommission dates also became a factor in the shooting selection as I wanted to document these generating stations as they breathed their last breaths.
But with Trump’s presidency, things have changed. Many of these decommission dates have shifted, or altogether disappeared, as the Trump administration has significantly dismantled Obama-era regulations. With this shift in the political landscape, another layer of questions was added to my project. Once again, we find ourselves uncertain at a critical juncture, but now much more is at stake than ever before. These power stations will either become artefacts of the past, or remain as they are, actively contributing to the systems and forces that hurtle us closer towards total ecological collapse.
(Interview: David Dinnell)