Toward a Bird's Eye View: Beyond mine, extracted Gretchen Ernster Henderson

"Toward a Bird's Eye View: Beyond mine, extracted"
Gretchen Ernster Henderson
Medium: Film, 12 minutes

This film on "Toward a Bird's Eye View" grows from tar seeps of natural asphalt at Rozel Point in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Nicknamed 'death traps,' tar seeps are pools of raw oil that creep up from tectonic fractures and spread across the earth like sticky flypaper. An unsuspecting bird or animal wandering through a melting seep can get fatally stuck. Aesthetically, the tar seeps attracted Land artist Robert Smithson to select this site for his iconic earthwork of Spiral Jetty (1970). Over the past century, oil drilling was attempted in this remote arm of Great Salt Lake, a body of water that is continually mined of its natural resources. Often likened to a dead sea, Great Salt Lake is wildly alive and entangled with watersheds of the American West, supporting many lives, human and otherwise, including hundreds of species of migratory birds. Rozel Point invites paying closer attention to interrelationships—water and salt, art and tar, birds and beyond—that might help us perceive overlooked ecologies, not only far afield but right where we are.

In keeping with this digital-born exhibition on Mining the West, the film integrates varied technologies (iPhone photography, camera trap images, drone and GoPro videos, on-site and archival audio, and intrasonic recordings of seismic vibrations of river runoff to Great Salt Lake). By blending on-the-ground (human) and aerial (akin to bird's eye) views and related soundscapes, the film offers a virtual portal to Great Salt Lake's tar seeps, while moving beyond human-bound and visually-dominated sensibilities to engage with other perspectives and perceptive registers.

For more background, this film interconnects with my book, Life in the Tar Seeps: Overlooked Ecologies at Great Salt Lake and Beyond (Trinity University Press). An excerpt on "Life in the Tar Seeps" appeared in Ecotone (Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2020). For more, follow "pelican" and "a migratory point of view," spiraling to "here before & where beyond" (about Nancy Holt's artwork) and additional digital strata.

Thanks to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the J. Willard Marriott Library for publicly sharing their collections. For a historical perspective, this archival photograph shows oil drilling in a nearby vicinity of Great Salt Lake at Promontory Point, June 1978. (Digital Image © 2008 Utah State Historical Society.) Thanks also to collaborative stewards of Rozel Point including the Great Salt Lake Institute, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Dia Art Foundation, Holt/Smithson Foundation, and the State of Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

More about Gretchen Ernster Henderson

Gretchen Ernster Henderson writes across environmental arts, humanities, and cultural histories to cross-pollinate creative and critical practices. The author of four books of nonfiction and fiction, along with opera libretti, arts media, and poetry chapbooks, her writings have been reviewed in The New Yorker, Guardian, TLS, and Literary Review, with interviews on NPR and BBC Radio. She is currently a Senior Lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and 2020-2022 Faculty Fellow at UT's Humanities Institute. Other recent commitments have included being Associate Director for Research at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, Co-Director of an NEH Institute on Museums: Humanities in the Public Sphere at Georgetown University, and 2018-2019 Annie Clark Tanner Fellow in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. She has taught widely, and her work has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and artist residency programs, most recently at the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing & Literature in Switzerland and the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities in Montana.

See more of Gretchen Henderson's work.

© Gretchen E. Henderson 2021