Dan Borelli

Posted in Justice, Learning, Nature

The Cloud of Unknowing: Our Future is
Our History


Still from The Cloud of Unknowing intro video by Dan Borelli

Artist/designer and Ashland, MA, native Dan Borelli has been working for the last several years on a collaborative, multidisciplinary project titled The Cloud of Unknowing: Our Future Is Our History. Ashland is where the Nyanza Superfund site is located, and Dan’s project is aimed at helping the townspeople come to grips with the severe effects water and soil contamination from the Nyanza colorant plant and its predecessors at the site have had on public health in the area.  As Dan has worked on The Cloud of Unknowing over time, he has been able to establish a network of creative partners and supportive local institutions that has allowed him to expand it from a one-person project commemorating friends who died from cancer caused by the contamination to a much larger “distributed institution” that is producing an exhibition at the Ashland Public Library, a teaching unit for a course at the Harvard School of Public Health and, potentially, other related entities. For his Prospectus contribution, Dan has written a first-person “travelogue” of The Cloud of Unknowing from inception to current status and well as the video “introduction” that appears directly below.

Artist’s Statement

For the last three years I have been working on a research-based art project about Ashland,  MA, and its Superfund site, the Nyanza Colorant Plant. The subject choice is not random; in fact, it’s deeply personal as Ashland is my hometown, and the Superfund site is directly responsible for contaminating my community.  Some friends of mine even contracted a rare, fatal form of cancer, and Nyanza was posthumously verified as the source. My project, titled The Cloud of Unknowing: Our Future is Our History, looks at the various cultures within a contaminated community, and the unknowing refers directly to the meta-narratives that shape identity, often only known to “insiders” as their patrimony.

In forming our identities, we rely as much on these internal stories as we do on external facts. As narrative is one axis along this formational process of identity, how is the perpendicular axis of knowledge shaped? What are the various constructs of knowledge and their methodologies for establishing facts? A more specific inquiry in the case of a contaminated community asks the following: what are the systems for how “public knowledge” is made public and for the processes of disseminating “public knowledge”—both physical and digital—back into the very publics that are impacted? My project is situated within this state of cognitive dissonance between subjective forms of knowing and quantitative representations of place.

For the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation, I have composed a first-person “travelogue” of my project from inception to its current status. This is an account of an artist’s return to his hometown and trespassing across suppressed subjects and interrogating identity shapers that lie embedded within a place to show that contamination occurs across strata and scales in physical and psychological realms. The final form is produced here as a digital “booklet, downloadable below, and as printed matter, which will be available in the future at the Ashland Public Library.

The Cloud of Unknowing: Our Future is Our History Booklet

This is the digital version of Dan’s “travelogue.”

Click here to download the booklet. (35 Mb file).



Relevant Links

Artist’s Project Blog — The Cloud of Unknowing: Our Future is Our History

Ashland & Nyanza Multi-media teaching case for the Harvard School of Public Health

Environmental Protection Agency

Massachusetts Department of Public Health

Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (TSDR)

Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

Ashland Town Web Site

Ashland Historical Society

Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA)

US Geological Survey

Sudbury River Valley Trustees



Dan Borelli

Dan Borelli is a visual artist and the Director of Exhibitions at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Dan’s creative practice, seen as a whole, focuses on the interdependent qualities of color, light, and space. As both an active participant in an institution and an artist who creates individual projects that engage institutions, Dan’s artistic process is highly collaborative and team-oriented.

Originally from Ashland Massachusetts and currently residing in Framingham, he has recently shifted his practice from an individual who makes things and then places them in space to an individual who makes things happen with people in space. Central to this shift is his ongoing project on the relationship between the town of Ashland and its Superfund site, the Nyanza Colorant Plant. In this project he is collaborating with Kara Oehler and the Zeega software team to create a participatory archive to display the living histories of this subject at the Ashland Public Library and on the web. Together, they are creating a multimedia teaching case of this project for the Harvard School of Public Health.