For the second part of my Visiting Fellowship research — (see the first part here)— my intention was to explore if handling soil/toxic soil would activate individuals. In the context of “vibrant matter” (Jane Bennett, 2010, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things), I believe touching “matter that matters” plays a crucial role in engaging deeply with the material and the historical events to which that material is part of. My plan was to deliver a workshop where participants would model clay from an extractivist site to test this model.
As a starting point, I used the environmental crime that occurred in Brazil in January 2019. In the region of Brumandinho, a dam’s mine collapsed, creating a huge wave of 12 million cubic metres of tailings that went downhill, travelling at 120 km/h in the pristine natural area of Minas Gerais. It took everything with it: the forest, the mine’s loading station, its administrative area and the cafeteria where many workers were having their lunch. 272 lives in total were lost.
To get soil from this site, I reached out to different networks of people in connection to this disaster – the association of families of victims and specifically the family of Marlene Melo; the London Mining Network which campaigns for ecological justice and is in direct contact with this area in Brazil; the lawyers who are supporting the international lawsuits against the different involved parties; and even some Brazilian friends. Parallel to this, I also explored the legal requirement for importing organic soil versus inorganic soil – from organic soil import permits and triple lock packaging to definitions of organic matter and hallowed ground. It was highly complicated…. After many conversations and complex moral questions that had arisen, the access to material was near impossible. How do I move on from here?
As weeks and months passed, I realised the dream of bringing Brazilian soil into the UK was unreachable. But the sculptor in me really wanted to touch and explore the materiality of soil from a mining site and test my ideas with others. A couple of weeks after my online conversation with curator Sophie J Williamson and artist Xavier de Ribas (see blog:…….), I started searching for sites in the UK where mining had happened – specifically, historical sites where the land has been polluted and the soil is still potentially toxic.
A chat with Professor Martin Smith (School of Applied Social Sciences, University of Brighton) and an online surf over the United Kingdom using Google Maps quickly showed me an immense landscape of mining sites and quarries all across the UK. We zoomed in and out like eagles in the sky, hunting for historical and current sites, for changes of vegetation in the terrain, sharp angles on rivers or different colour of sediments on estuaries.
After evaluating access to different sites and regulations I settled for Parys Mountain in North Wales, an abandoned mine site for copper mining that closed in 1890. The manual extraction methods in this site were similar to iron mining and the diversity in colour of the soils and the easy access to the site made it a good choice, just a little far from Brighton (but definitely closer than Brazil!)
Bingo, I’ve found my clay
Dr Norman Moles, Principal Lecturer in the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Brighton facilitated and organised the samples from the Parys Mountain. He also provided me with a geochemistry analysis of the diverse rocks and soil. The analysis highlighted high concentrations of specific elements in certain samples — samples collected from different areas of the mountain would have experienced different processing methods. This shows the result of extractive methods on Parys Mountain and proof of the extensive mining operations throughout history, as early as the bronze age.
One of the samples was a perfect smooth orange clay deposit from the insides of Parys Mountain, taken at 20 fathoms (around 36m underground). This extraordinary material, a super-concentrated ferrous clay, with a 71.37% Fe2O3 content in it, was the perfect material for the workshop I had in mind. It was easy to model with, just a little bit too wet, but it behaved pretty much like sculpting clay, holding itself together just enough to model it into shapes. I also tested its consistency and hardness after drying. And to my surprise, it turned totally red after firing it in my tiny studio kiln. Of course, the iron content!
The stomach of Parys Mountain
As I needed more of this clay for the public workshop, we decided to travel to Wales and collected a container full of this incredible material from the site. The visit to the mine above and underground was mesmerising. It was facilitated by Ronald Clays, who has been caring for Parys Mountain’s stomach and intestines for the last 20 years.
Parys Mountain troubles my senses and contradicts my mind. I’m totally seduced by the hundreds of colours in the landscape. All tones of ochres, from orange to red to pink, you name it. And then there is the water, the acid, the neon tones. I cannot stop feeling amazed and fascinated, but also scared by the almost neon orange from the toxic iron deposits everywhere…
What is toxic soil?
Through my research and conversations with academics from the School of Applied Sciences at University of Brighton, I learnt that toxic doesn’t necessarily mean that we added a toxic chemical to the soil that wasn’t there before. As there are no extra chemicals needed to process the ore in iron or copper mining, “toxic” in this context simply means that there are extremely high levels of specific elements, like Iron (Fe) in the soil which doesn’t allow for organic life to thrive.
But after our trip to Parys Mountain, I discovered that there are indeed organisms that thrive in highly acidic environments — amorphic structures which are called snotites (E.g.Ferrovum Myxofaciens). They happily live in the mountain intestines where the water is red, acidic as vinegar, and they feed onto the acid of its walls.
Toxic Fragments – The workshop
To maximise engagement, I ran the workshop on two afternoons, Thursday, 7 July and Sunday, 10 July, at the Fishing Quarter Gallery in Brighton Seafront. I was keen to engage with the non-academic public outside of the university environment, and see how they would interact with the clay.
Visitors dropped in at their leisure, explored the gallery (installed with images explaining the background of the project and soil samples) and sat to model some clay. Approximately half of the visitors were kids and half adults.
Different participants took different things from this workshop, including myself.
For the kids, I found myself using sentences like: “this clay has superpowers”; “it turns red, like a crab after cooking”; “it has lots of iron like Popeye”; and “it comes from inside the mountain’s stomach so you need to use gloves to touch it”.
Most adults took time to explore the informative displays on the walls to try to understand the context. It was them who were explaining to their kids about the origin of the clay which they were touching and playing with. I couldn’t avoid wondering if this could be a teaching tool for parents, to explain to their kids the damaging effect of extractive industries in the world around us.
For many adults, the first realisation was how close to their own homes mining has and had been happening. Mining is usually something that happens far away, in other countries. The landscape of Parys Mountain somehow felt quite alien to them and they could not believe that land was within their home country.
“No way this site is so close to home, no way this is Wales. I didn’t know Wales had mining!”
And when adults sat down and engaged with the clay and started modelling, most of them went quiet. The clay and its “vibrant matter” took over and I could also sense the human creative brain in conversation with the material’s own desires. There was an obvious tension between what adults think and want, and how the material then behaves or misbehaves.
As an artist, the first thing that hits me is how hard it is to get an audience into a gallery space. People go about their daily lives and they don’t tend to deviate and walk into an unfamiliar space. It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon when the space felt busy and buzzing.
Secondly if someone dared to walk in, how would they travel – mentally – to the project’s constellation (in this case I would call it “cave system” as it seems more appropriate).
Let us assume that people’s daily lives are on ground zero and we are all busy with our daily worries about practical stuff — the on-the-surface stuff. How can I take them 20 fathoms underground figuratively, to engage with this supercharged clay and the challenges it inherently proposes? How can I walk people down with me in this journey? Somehow, it feels like when you’re trying to access the subconscious in a psychotherapy session — it is all the stuff that is buried down below, beneath, hidden, invisible, that we would rather not look at because it’s too challenging…
I guess touching matter does just that. The matter is present. By pressing clay and handling it ,you are acknowledging its presence and origin. It calls for you to act. The 60+ little shapes created in the workshop are the result of 60+ direct engagements with the matter itself.
How the memory of that experience grows in someone’s unconsciousness is still to be researched. BUT maybe, just maybe, it might change colour like these shapes after being fired in the kiln at different temperatures. The darker colour was fired at 1000C over 8 hours, the lighter tone was fired at 900C over 8 hours.
All images by Arabel Lebrusan
With many thanks to:
Ronald Clays, Guide at Parys Mountain
Peter Lyons, Geochemical Officer, University of Brighton
Dr Norman Moles, Principal Lecturer, University of Brighton
Martin Smith, Professor of Geochemistry, University of Brighton. Associate Dean for Research and Enterprise, School of Applied Sciences
Rebecca Elmhirst, Professor of Human Geography, University of Brighton
Katy Beinart, Artist, Lecturer and Deputy Director of Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, University of Brighton
Nichola Khan, Co-Director of Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, University of Brighton
Julie Doyle, Professor of Media and Communication, Co-Director of Centre for Spatial,
Environmental and Cultural Politics, University of Brighton
Extended thanks to:
Sophie J Williamson, Independent curator and writer
Xavier Ribas, Senior Lecturer, University of Brighton
Alice Owen, Research Student, University of Brighton
Andrew Hickman, London Mining Network
Arabel Lebrusan is a Spanish-born artist working in sculpture, drawing, jewellery, and site-specific interventions. Focusing on materials and material culture—such as metal from knives confiscated by police, or mercury used in small-scale gold mining, her work investigates wider issues of power relationships, exploitation and inequality, and her artworks function as social commentary.
If you are interested in exploring other work on extractivism by members of the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics then please visit our Despite Extractivism arts activism collaboration