Artist Arabel Lebrusan started her Research Fellowship at the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics at the University of Brighton in summer 2021, with the aim of exploring notions of extractivism, ecofeminism and ecological grief, through her artistic practice.

She is interested in whether art making – drawing, sculpturing, performing, moving, acting – can get us closer to/engaging with ecological and social tragedies happening thousands of miles away from us. Her Fellowship intends to investigate how objects and materials have the potential to hold memories (Object Reminiscence framework), or be “vibrant matter” (Jane Bennett, 2010, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things) and how, from both angles, handling the material plays a crucial role in unlocking those narratives. Her work asks, ‘Can art making activate our empathy at a deeper level than our rational understanding of events, and urge us to act?’

For the first public activity of the Fellowship, Arabel held a participatory online (and in person) drawing performance at the Brighton CCA Project Space in Dorset Place on 28th September 2021. Titled Toxic waves, the performance invited participants to draw to the beat of a metronome the shape of a wave with a repetitive line, using charcoal and the movement of their body. Whilst 5 participants joined Arabel in the gallery space, the rest joined remotely via Zoom. The collaborative performance lasted around ten minutes, with additional time allocated beforehand to set up and cover explanations, and afterwards to discuss the performance as a group.

Investigating the exploitation and inequality deep-rooted in social tragedies, Toxic Waves seeks to engage with such disasters through the medium of art, exploring whether this medium has the power to close the distance between us and the events happening thousands of miles away from us. Specifically, the performance referred to a specific human and environmental tragedy that took place in Brazil in 2019. On the 25th January 2019, the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil, played host to a disaster of devastating proportions. When a tailings dam belonging to Vale, the world’s largest iron ore producer, collapsed, tonnes of toxic mudflow advanced downstream, killing 270 people in the process. Prosecutors subsequently described a relationship of ‘pressure, collusion, rewards and conflict of interest between Value and the German company TÜV SÜD,’ alleging that Vale hid information about the dam’s instability to avoid harming the company’s reputation, and TÜV SÜD issued reports confirming that it was safe.

Arabel felt that the workshop opened several themes. For instance, people’s perception of disasters/crimes changed due to the focused activity, as time slows down through the movement and there is time to think and reflect. Secondly, participants reported that they felt the performance became a kind of ‘collective grieving,’ which was an unexpected outcome. Thirdly, the performance had a powerful symbolic aspect, as these wave represented many other waves in the world.

Participant comments included:
“When you’re watching something happening on TV you just see a snapshot and you think, Oh, that’s so fast. And then when you’re doing it, and you’re in this mode of remembering, and you’re physically active, it really slows down. And it really contrasts with that kind of consumption of media of something happening quickly.”
“I feel angry actually. I feel quite angry and quite sad at the same time.”
“It was really profound.”
“I went through waves of feelings…”
“I’m intrigued how much this evening, online, we became a community and we somehow connected with this figure of 272 people. That’s beautiful. I think rituals have this quality of not just including us in something larger but becoming part of something.”
“Collective grieving”
“God knows who we are, when we feel angry or not angry or sad or desperate or whatever, you know, but being part of a wave that can carry on these emotions is very different to being sitting by oneself and having an emotion alone”
“…it made me think of tsunamis. So it wasn’t just the disaster there but the disasters all over the world that are happening continuously and how we become desensitized from it all.”
“This can relate to so many disasters. This wave is a wave that happens in so many places in the world. They’re not alone because sometimes people in these areas they feel that they’re totally alone. There is a sense of grieving together.
“It was just like a meditation session”

Through the workshop and Fellowship, Arabel has made links with Extracting Us/Despite Extractivsm and with the London Mining Network, which she will take forward into the next stage of the project. Next steps include a conversation with curator Sophie J Williamson and members of SECP about the project themes, and a second workshop in spring/summer 2022 which uses participatory sculpture to explore the research questions. Arabel is working with Centre member and Deputy Director Katy Beinart to write up and share findings from the Fellowship.

You can watch a short video of the performance here: