Michael Ashkin’s video Centralia (2009) takes its name from a mining town in central Pennsylvania, where coal deposits beneath the town caught fire in 1962 and have been burning since. Rather than document the now nearly abandoned mining town, Ashkin locates his camera on a hilltop at Odd Fellows Cemetery—one of the remaining traces of evidence of what was once a working-class immigrant community—directing its lens towards an ongoing mining operation nearby.
With Centralia, the roving, consumer eye of the eco-disaster tourist, titillated by the ghost town’s photogenic smoking crevasses, sinkholes, and ruins, is given no line of escape. Ashkin trains his camera on the ongoing processes of ecological destruction, rather than consuming the effects, which so often in mass media and entertainment assume the appearance of cinematic pyrotechnics. Witness for example the sublimely lingering news coverage of buring oil wells after the first Gulf War, in which ecological catastrophe and financial disaster (i.e. money going up in smoke) condensed in an indissoluble image of apocalypse.
Centralia, dvd, 9 min.
As varying orders of temporality cross Centralia’s frame one is confronted with a scene voided of human scale. Temporal strata congeal, utterly indifferent to one another, in the static shot: Shadows of clouds pass over the excavated hillside; the invisible flux of biological time is sensed indirectly through a waving bush or the passing of a lone insect across the foreground; massive trucks, reduced to miniscule size in the frame, repeat the scheduled rounds and choreographed movements of industrial energy extraction and waste disposal. In Ashkin's video places capitalist cycles of exploitation and crisis, its boom and bust, alongside natural phenomenon.
The sustained look of Centralia is a dialectical image—caught between the all too real effects of a history of capitalist exploitation on the one hand, and a future projected as the eternal recurrence of the same, Centralia's gaze reveals the communitarian dream of industrialization to be a bridge made of shit covered in rainbows— Those of Centralia’s original population of 1,100 who continue to occupy the remaining 8 row houses do so over a toxic and unstable ground.