A multimedia art installation centered around Love Canal runs through the end of November at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. ‘UNSEEN’ appeals to the senses while showcasing the lasting consequences of the toxic waste that destroyed Niagara Falls neighborhoods more than 40 years ago. Artist Chantal Calato explained to WBFO’s Nick Lippa how the work came to be.
"My name is Chantel Colato. I'm an environmental artist. I'm originally from Niagara Falls and I grew up near the infamously toxic Love Canal. I have been working on this project called UNSEEN for about four years.”
“I interviewed 18 people from Niagara County across different toxic areas. At the heart of UNSEEN is a soundscape of their voices describing how they've been affected living in a toxic environment. So we experience UNSEEN through their personal stories, the sights, the smells, the emotional and physical burden that their environment has brought on to them.”
“It is an eight channel audio experience. When you go into the room there's a visual element. It's a house. The house represents the idea of home and questions kind of whether or not our home environment is a safe place to be. It should be a safe place to be. You should have control over whether your house is safe or not. But sometimes that barrier between inside and out is blurred. And we don't always know when or why that happens. And that's why this project is called UNSEEN.”
“I spent about nine months just listening over and over and over to all of the hours of interviews before I really knew what I was going to do with them. And then I actually went through a pretty trying experience myself back in 2018. I had what you call-- it was a molar pregnancy, which was-- I grew a tumor instead of a baby. And then I had to go through chemotherapy. And this is right after I had done all these interviews. And going through that process forced me to then get out of it and just edit this audio. There was something about going through that that pushed me. It made me realize what I needed to do.”
“There was moments that some person's story seemed more like a monologue. Even though this isn't a theatrical thing. It's real people.”
“And then there's what I call the duets-- where you have two people speaking kind of almost as if they were talking to each other, or in the same room playing off of one another."
“My brother Joe is the reason I created this whole project. He was diagnosed with a cancer called multiple myeloma, which is a blood cancer. It eats away at your bones. Usually people who are 41 years old do not get this type of cancer, but it has been linked to environmental factors. And his doctor, his hematologists asked him do you live in Niagara Falls?”
"There must be a reason why he asked him that. It's a problem that's widespread. And it's not a problem of 40 years ago, we're still dealing with it today.”
Calato further explained how the design of the house and the visual concept of exhibition came togeter.
"There were a lot of iterations to the visual design of this project before it landed where it is right now. But in the end, what was important was that there was a lot of-- I'll call it negative space in the room to allow the voices, the presence for people to experience these stories. It was a very deliberate choice to, in a physical way have the room be very empty. And I like the idea of congregating in the center with a visual element that is focused on a house so that when people are coming in and out of the space, they're drawn to that central point. But then if they stay in there, they may find themselves meandering around the space to catch a better understanding of what somebody's saying on the other side of the room. So you know, every person who comes into the space is going to have a vastly different experience depending on where they're standing. And I love that about it. So you could go in there three times. And have a different experience."
You can view and hear UNSEEN at the Burchfield Penney Art Center from now until November 29