At this year’s SXSW Festival, engineering took center stage in the documentary DamNation (directors Travis Rummel & Ben Knight), which won the Documentary Spotlight Audience Award. It begins with America’s rash of dam-building under FDR when these mammoth structures were considered man-made wonders. Hoover and Grand Coulee are the large-scale examples, but there were about 80,000 smaller dams built across the country.
That level of admiration has collapsed as we have come to understand that dam construction went overboard and the consequences were detrimental to wildlife and the environment—and may not have provided the energy, shipping, irrigation, drinking water, and flood control that was expected (who knew that high levels of methane gas are released from reservoir surfaces?).
About a quarter of existing dams are considered highly hazardous, and only 2,540 actually produce hydropower, accounting for approximately nine percent of U.S. energy supply. Further, dams block salmon and other fish migration (if it stops the water, it stops the fish…and the entire ecosystem) and degrades water quality by blocking flow. The politics of “reclamation” is questioned. The argument for dam removal is eloquently and humorously made. Think of the definition of dam: “To obstruct or restrain the flow.”
Also scaling an engineering feat, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, is the film Impossible Light (director Jeremy Ambers) which chronicles Leo Villeareal’s 25,000 LED lights Bay Lights project, the world’s largest light sculpture at 1.8 miles long and 500 feet high. The nightly dust-to-dawn light show is streamed online at thebaylights.org.
Considered the ugly stepsister of the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge is actually complex of two bridges (one double-suspension, the other cantilever) comprising one of the longest spans of any in the States. The bridge has been enlivened by this installation which was a political and technical accomplishment as much as an artistic one, not unlike the erection of the bridge itself.
Another determined artist who scales buildings is dancer Elizabeth Streb. Not just a choreographer, she has been called an “extreme action architect” for the gravity-defying movement she calls “Popaction.” In Born to Fly (director Catherine Gund), we not only follow her dancers in their Williamsburg studio but go to the London Olympics where they are suspended from Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge, climb the spokes of the London Eye Ferris Wheel, leap in Trafalgar Square, and walk down the curved glass facade of Foster’s City Hall.
Eleanor Ambos Interiors (director Andrew Michael Ellis) shows the eccentric 86-year old interior designer who has collected buildings as well as furnishings. She now rents out these spaces for events and photo shoots. The buildings were acquired to warehouse her ever-growing collection that she originally used to furnish her clients’ homes, but she just couldn’t stop. The Metropolitan Building in Long Island City is one, and others are in Hudson, NY. Losing her sight to macular degeneration has slowed but not stopped Eleanor.
Print the Legend (directors Luis Lopez & Clay Tweel) on 3D printing, Font Men (director Dress Code) about typeface designers, and Pioneer Palace (director Andrew McAllister) about a town that was originally an Old West motion picture set built in the 1940s and the revived honky-tonk Pappy and Harriet’s, are among the other selections. Profiles of artists included Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace (director Jeff Dupre), David Hockney IN THE NOW (in six minutes) (director Lucy Walker), Obey the Artist (director Ondi Timoner) about Shepard Fairey, best known for the Obama “Hope” poster, and The Case of the Three Sided Dream (director Adam Kahan) about jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk which will be playing at the IFC Center on June 11 as part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival.
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