Artists Statement / Open Letter

As artists based in Zurich we first started in 2006 to work on a video installation and later on a documentary about the former solar installation on the White House. Jimmy Carter had installed them in June 1979 – in midst of a sever recession during the second oil crisis and only some months before the re-election that Carter didn’t win. The Reagan team simultaneously campaigned with the idea of dismantling the Energy Department but “only” succeeded in cutting down the renewable energy budget by 90% and in taking down the White House solar installation in 1986.

Thirty-one years later, on Oct. 5, 2010 United States Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced: “The White House will lead by example. — I’m pleased to announce that by the end of this spring, there will be solar panels that convert sunlight to energy and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House.”

By the end of spring 2011 Ramamoorthy Ramesh, director of the Solar Energy Technologies Program at DOE affirmed: “The Energy Department remains on the path to complete the White House solar demonstration project, in keeping with our commitment, and we look forward to sharing more information — including additional details on the timing of this project — after the competitive procurement process is completed.”

Another year later there is still nothing on the White House to harness the power of the sun. It’s obvious that the Obama administration is holding back this symbolic gesture because of the incessant Republican criticism against Obama’s energy policies in the aftermath of the Solyndra scandal.

If Barak Obama should fail to be re-elected this fall, the idea of solar on the White House might take another long hibernation. What a pity.

While it is totally understandable that the Obama administration prefers not to anger voters by putting more money into solar, it’s also sad to see that this administration is more concerned to maintain its political image than to act.

Jimmy Carter is said to have been less diplomatic. House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill who once wanted him to contact some influential members of Congress was turned down with the words: “Why should I call them? It’s the right thing to do.”

Next to the faltering economy, the gas lines and the Iran hostage crisis Jimmy Carter’s principal attitude with sometimes suboptimal political maneuvering might have cost him the re-election.

Artists are used to look to longer time frames than politicians. One of our central concerns is how our work will be remembered. Will our work be preserved in museums because it is considered to be a new idea or a novel formal expression? We’re used to be judged about what we did rather then what we said.

In this sense Jimmy Carter might have been a better artist than politician. He committed the US foreign policies to Human Rights, left as his legacy the first peace agreement between Israel and an Arab neighbor country and kissed the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. From the beginning of his presidency Carter invested a lot of his political capital on energy efficiency and the development of renewable energies. Even being ridiculed at the time he managed to put thermal solar panels on the roof of the West Wing.

Today renewables have become the fastest growing energy source of the world. On sunny days German Solar installations produce more power then twenty nuclear plants. The required technologies were developed in the United States in the late1970s. That’s why we thought it was important to bring one of the former White House solar panels – with the help of Unity College, Maine – to the Museum of American History in our documentary «A Road not Taken». A second panel we delivered to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum where it is permanently on display.

The current administration’s attempt to bring solar back to the White House might end as yet another road not taken – but with little chance to get remembered.

Further information about Jimmy Carter:

Christina Hemauer & Roman Keller, Zürich, June 2012