Shelby Bennett reviews Robyn Woolston’s ‘Yours, in Extraction’

When entering Robyn Woolston’s recent solo exhibition Yours, in Extraction, the first word viewers see is “EMERGENCY.” The word is emblazoned on a stack of ‘Emergency Beacons’ stacked in the middle of the gallery at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts (Art Galleries at TCU). The beacons are tall, black, poles topped with blue lights that immediately catch the viewer’s attention. As Woolston states in the exhibition publication, the TCU campus is full of these Emergency Beacons that are topped with a blue light and equipped with a call button that connects directly to campus police. The beacons are ‘on loan’ from the TCU Facilities department and will be returned for reuse after the exhibition. Seeing them battered and lying on the ground is jarring for students who are used to encountering them as symbols of safety, securely standing in well-manicured lawns across campus.

Robyn Woolston is a visual artist who uses installation, photography, moving image, and print to inspire climate-based reflection in her audiences. Often working in non-gallery spaces, Woolston explores eco-grief, climate anxiety, land rights, and environmental extinction. Through her interdisciplinary and collaborative practice, Woolston’s work questions the structural frameworks perpetuating climate change’s violent and disastrous effects. For her solo exhibition at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts (19th October – 18th November 2022) Woolston presents a new film, publication, and series of discursive objects. Yours, in Extraction is the result of ideas and materials brought together over three years through residency periods in Fort Worth and collaborations with TCU’s Department of Psychology and BRIT, the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. The outcome is a thoughtful, complex, and interconnected exhibition that is both deeply rooted in Fort Worth’s extraction-rich geography and internationally relevant. 

Although the installation in the gallery seems simple at first, each independent element speaks to the others, creating a robust conversation on the current state of the climate. The film, the publication, the photography, the found and created objects, and the reflection spaces relate to one another, leading to a larger questioning of the frameworks and systems that perpetuate climate change. In this way, the exhibition functions as an ‘ecosystem,’ with each piece playing an independent and interconnected role. By creating an exhibition ‘ecosystem’ that relates to the local environment, Woolston communicates the large, complex, and overwhelming climate change issues in a tangible way to Fort Worth audiences. By collaborating with scientists and psychologists, Woolston also places herself within an interconnected system of agents working not only on visualizing but also embodying the realities of climate change to the public.

Facing the beacons are fabric banners and aluminum plates printed with Woolston’s photographs of Fort Worth’s landscape and the extinct-in-the-wild species specimens that Woolston studied at BRIT. The kaleidoscope effect of the images encourages close looking at the fragments while obscuring the entire image, creating a kind of visual dissonance that speaks to the alienation modern viewers feel from their natural environments. The fabric banners are made of ethically sourced organic cotton, and the aluminum plates are printed by a factory that runs on 100% renewable energy.

On the opposing wall, a series of kiosk flags in a gradient of bright red and pink hues line the entire wall. The flags are printed on both sides with words like “organic,” “biodiversity,” “redlining,” and “home,” literally ‘flagging’ the climate crisis while calling the viewer’s attention to what the natural world can mean to us and how it can be manipulated and controlled. The flags are made from post-consumer recycled materials.

Facing the kiosk flags, a series of agricultural tags, replicas of the tags placed on the ears of cattle, are hung in a cluster on the wall. The tags are printed with words like “oil,” “morality,” and “land rights,” referencing Fort Worth’s cattle trading history while calling attention to contemporary climate issues. The tags are made from 100% recycled material.

On the back wall, a television screen plays the Yours, in Extraction film. The film is made up of footage Woolston filmed during her residency in Texas and interviews recorded with researchers in TCU’s Department of Psychology and BRIT, the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.

A table at the front of the gallery displays books, including the publication Woolston created for the exhibition, along with titles for further research about climate change, trauma, and healing. The books will all be given to TCU’s library after the exhibition closes, allowing students to continue engaging with the materials long after the show moves on. Another table displays engagement materials, including printed pamphlets encouraging visitors to respond to prompts like “how does climate change make you feel?” Asking viewers to engage with their feelings about climate change directly, whether before or after viewing Woolston’s exhibition, allows them to confront their own grief, trauma, or fear.

Clearly, Yours, in Extraction is an exhibition where form follows function. All materials are recycled or ethically sourced; even Woolston’s trips to Texas were carbon offset. For the full environmental statement on the exhibition see Woolston’s website. More than just the materials, though, Woolston was intentional about creating work that itself would be regenerative. The film and publication created for Yours, in Extraction will continue to be shown, maximizing the potential for continued reflection and conversation about climate change outside the physical exhibition space. Woolston’s research at BRIT also continues to evolve as plant species thought to be extinct when she began the project three years ago have since been rediscovered.

When reading about the rediscoveries of plant species thought to be extinct, I was glad to find a hint of optimism, the possibility of a ‘happy ending.’ However, this thread of optimism that comes from a rediscovery is predicated on the necessity of loss in the first place. Woolston turns to environmental studies scholar Donna J. Haraway to capture the condition of embracing loss to act on our responsibility to one another

Each time a story helps me remember what I thought I knew, or introduces me to new knowledge, a muscle critical for caring about flourishing gets some aerobic exercise. Such exercise enhances collective thinking and movement in complexity. Each time I trace a tangle and add a few threads that at first seemed whimsical but turned out to be essential to the fabric, I get a bit straighter that staying with the trouble of complex world-ing is the name of the game of living and dying well together…

We are all responsible to and for shaping conditions for multispecies flourishing in the face of terrible histories, and sometimes joyful histories too, but we are not all response-able in the same ways.

Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016)

Accepting the idea that there is no regeneration without loss, as Woolston does in Yours, in Extraction, allows us to confront the harrowing truth about climate change, mourn what we have lost, and then acknowledge our agency in moving together towards some kind of healing.

Shelby Bennett is an art historian and writer. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Art History at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Her thesis investigates how depictions of Jeanne Duval reveal anxieties about race and women’s roles in nineteenth-century France.

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