There’s nothing wrong with Niagara Falls, the natural wonder. That much is clear in the immersive video experience Niagara Falling showing in the de Saisset Museum through Dec. 6.
The problems, the Falling to which the title alludes, plague the city of Niagara Falls, which has seen its population fall so far—from a peak of 102,394 in 1960 to 49,722 in 2012—that it no longer even qualifies as a city under U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines.
It’s a sad story and one that artists David and Hi-Jin Hodge tell in unique fashion, using dual continuously playing, floor-to-ceiling video projections.
Projected onto one wall is Niagara Falls, the waterfalls, in all their powerful, pristine glory. In front of this, on a translucent sheet, the viewer is taken on tour of Niagara Falls, the city, past boarded-up downtown buildings, eerily quiet neighborhoods, forlorn government offices.
Interviews spanning generations of residents explain how the phenomenon of U.S. manufacturers relocating overseas devastated Niagara Falls’ economy. Then came Love Canal, the environmental disaster created when a chemical company buried 22,000 tons of toxic waste on its production site. Abnormally high rates of miscarriages, mental illnesses, and cancer followed. No one wanted to live anywhere near what became the country’s first designated superfund toxic-waste cleanup site.
In the video, one resident is heard to remark, “Love Canal was for Niagara Falls what Rock Hudson was for AIDS”—in this case the poster child for daunting, negligent industrial pollution. But to other longtime residents, Niagara Falls remains a hometown with culture and resilient roots. You hear words of longing for what once was.
Niagara Falling is one of two exhibits by the Hodges installed at the de Saisset under the title Closer by the Minute. The other, Life on Wheels, also fills a gallery with video and complementary imagery. This time it’s a model of a highway, about a foot wide, which winds through the center of the room. The toy roadway is covered with more than 500 identical shiny green Hot Wheels-size cars, bumper to bumper in a miniature traffic jam. A spotlight shines on the cause of the backup: a crash involving four cars.
Video playing continuously on all four walls includes engrossing interviews with four survivors of car crashes, and all kinds of car-related imagery: car washes, drag racing, road construction, auto shops, car commercials. At one point viewers are taken on a drive up the Bay Area’s U.S. 101 to San Francisco. Hillsides roll past, traffic stalls, the twinkling nighttime glimmer of the city comes into view.
But statistics flickering across the walls paint a less-beautiful picture. On average, around the world, two fatal car-involved crashes happen every minute. About 2.35 million Americans have been injured or disabled from road accidents, another slide states. Owning a car in the United States is said to cost about $8,000 a year—18 percent of the average household income—but cars are used roughly 5 percent of the time.
LEARN MORE about the Hodges and their films and about the de Saisset Museum at www.scu.edu/deSaisset.