by Arabel Lebrusan
On the afternoon of 4th June 2022, I invited curator Sophie J Williamson and artist Xavier Ribas to an online conversation chaired by CSECP Deputy Director Katy Beinart, where we discussed each of our practices in relation to one another and in relation to my recent project at The Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics at the University of Brighton, Toxic Waves.
We touched on a few key concepts surrounding the ethics of extractivism and speaking for others, implication and engagement, as well as time. Can taking minerals out of the ground ever be ethical? How do we ensure that we communicate effectively, and how does that then lead to action? How do we use our privilege for the wider good?
The section below also highlights some key points of our conversation.
About the speakers
I am a visual artist working in sculpture. I focus on transforming materials into physical metaphors. My project Toxic Waves explores the question of whether art-making through thinking while moving, touching or drawing, can instinctively activate our empathy. Toxic Waves is a body of work comprising of workshops and participatory drawing performances where participants are invited to engage and empathise with ecological events, either traumatic or non-traumatic, through gestural and artistic cues.
Sophie J Williamson
Much of Sophie’s work in recent years deals with the fundamental themes – of life, death, existence, and the meaning of it all. She is the convener and initiator of Undead Matter, a research programme that weaves together the intimacies of dying, from the personal to those across geological deep time and the celestial expanse. The research has emerged through intersecting conversations with creative practitioners, as well geologists, biologists and others met along the way, offering their own perspective on our place within the infinite impermanence of universal matter: past, present and possible.
Xavier Ribas has dedicated his photographic practice to looking into the natural history of nitrate. His work ‘Nitrate’ explores the political and geological history of Chile, linking it with flows of finance and consumption in Europe, in such a way that the geography of this material gives form to a colonial structure. Most of the works comprising ‘Nitrate’ include the photographic image alongside archival images, data, reports, news items, inventories, lists and even objects, which spills over the bounds of photography as a medium.
The ethics of mining
Can taking minerals off the ground ever be ethical? When mining happens, destruction happens. This activitydisrupts the solid matter that has been compacted and fossilised for thousands of years, taking just one single mineral, and frequently disregarding the rest. Often in the process, poisonous gases are released into the atmosphere, waste is raised to the ground and left behind exposed to the elements, which might in turn oxidise and transform that matter into toxic minerals which will corrode the land and poison the river systems.
In what conditions is mining done? What kinds of care do we need to apply to the process? How can we justify these operations? Can mining become regenerative instead of destructive? These are just a few of the endless questions that arise when we explore the past and future of mining.
In terms of gold and its history, one could also ask if gold can ever be ethical. Xavier shared the book by Michael Taussig, “My cocaine museum” which talks about gold and its relationship with cocaine and violence. If one looks at the history of gold, one starts to wonder if gold can ever be ethical even if it was recycled, found on the ground, etc. What is its history? How does that history affect how people are implicated in these materials?
Within (and outside) academia, the debate over mining connects different disciplines and offers a vital space to understand how we address the issue of mining, sustainability and social justice. Acknowledging the intrinsic links between mining and our daily lives as consumers means we need to think carefully about what sustainability means in this context and who mining is sustainable for, understanding the difference between an ethics of mining for those consuming the products, a social justice of mining for those impacted by mining and a deep care for the ecosystems we belong to and which support our daily lives.
Implication and sparking change
Nothing is outside the materiality of matter. Matter gets recycled, reworked, disseminated, consumed and extracted but nothing ever leaves the earth. It remains and points to one of the challenges of the climate crisis.
The whole planet is constantly a recycling organism of matter and material. We are aware that we are implicated in the lands that are distant to us, as well as those that are immediate to us.
Articulation can only go so far in terms of responding to the ecological urgencies in their localities and planetary forms. How to ensure that we communicate effectively, and how does that then lead to action on the other side? There is already a huge movement on mass education and articulating these ecological concepts to raise awareness and urgency, but how do we go beyond that to spark actions and change?
An issue around implication (implicating ourselves, audiences and other communities) is that such abstract, large issues of the world that seems too vast to handle need to be reduced to a much smaller, human-sized scale so that we can understand it. This process of simplification is important because they are part of strategies to implicate. Bringing it down to a human-scale is crucial as it helps disentangle the immense disruption of time that mining activities cause — how quickly the digging of solid grounds in several minutes or months can cause years and decades of trauma for communities.
Sophie raised that my work (Toxic Waves) is poetic in that it not only encourages knowledge exchange but stimulates an experience that is emotive. In Toxic Waves, I bring these large issues to a smaller, intimate space and create an embodied experience – really evoking the feeling and pain in us to stimulate implication. To me, we can only spark a reaction if things happen within us intrinsically. However, I am not only searching for the embodied experience. It is also about how I achieve the embodied experience, and how I share/enable the implication and experience with others. How do we identify our story with the story of The Earth, and help others to come to the understanding that there is no separation between us and nature, that actually other animals and rocks are our sisters and cousins and that The Earth is our own flesh, our bigger body.
Time within extractivism and how that leads to implication and change
Xavier’s 2009 research was inspired by ‘Oficina Alianza and Port of Iquique 1899’, an album of photographs from 1900 which documents the production cycle of sodium nitrate in Oficina Alianza, a factory-town in the Atacama Desert. This document shows how the place, and by extension their affected communities, are already devastated in 1900. The photographs anticipate a ruin. The mining operations will disappear one day leaving a deserted place behind. To him, mining always becomes a dead end.
In terms of Xavier’s historical documents, the distance from those events, the time that has passed, allows people to look back and form a perspective. On the other hand, we discussed how my body of work Toxic Waves feels so recent and the soil I work with is still in so much pain/has pain (the mining crime I refer to only happened 3 years ago). Can I even work with this charged soil? Am I going to produce even more unnecessary pain? And what if this soil has any organic remains?
But there are always organic remains going back to the soil all around us. What about the soil biota? All those little animals, bacteria and microsystems that live in fertile soils? We are constantly going back to soil, either through our food webs or extensions of our ecosystem, yet we do not feel so much for those as they are almost invisible to us. Death is consistently happening, is part of our everyday, even when we don’t see it – we put fertilisers and kill because we don’t see it, thus thinking that the effects aren’t as large as some extractivist operations. We don’t yet feel for that but our coming generations would.
Sophie touches on Xavier’s use of the word ‘ruins’ in relation to time. To her, while it is a ruin, it is also becoming something else. She references Huntington’s theory on the politics of decay who places purification as a productive force, rather than a destructive force. While mining industries are affecting land masses, we would still have to consider and think about what it would/could become (envisioned futures) and what it then becomes.
Whose voices are being highlighted and prioritised?
At the moment, ‘Toxic Waves’ also interrogates the issue of representation and speaking for others – the idea of ‘extracting’ stories from these communities and representing them seem problematic. There is a responsibility to telling the stories from others and we need to be aware that we are potentially extracting information, and therefor repeating the same imperialistic methodology. So in this context, where is the empathy and how can our work be useful to the local communities and the audiences? Are we caring enough?
Xavier shares the importance of remembering that we all have a vested interest/agenda, from the environmentalists to the lawyers and even us, artists. For artists, we could have an exhibition lined up in 2 years, hence it is important for us to address and help these communities within the timeline. Give them a voice.
Sophie shares that we should think about how we may make others feel implicated, and not just in our practices. How do we use our privilege for the wider good? Sophie’s been working on a project related to the Siberian Permafrost and within the project, she sometimes feel like an imposter – what has she, a British curator, got to do with the changes in the Permafrost? However, she reminds us that despite all of that, it is important to think about one’s rights and position to comment about certain landscapes because there is a responsibility that comes to being a consumer. Everything that we consume, from our food to clothes have a footprint that is changing the landscape of the Permafrost. How do we do our part while giving space to others to speak within our work and practice? It is important to use our privilege in hegemonic places like London to speak about certain landscapes to audiences whom local communities may not have access to.
Surprises in the work process
Xavier thought it would be easier when working with these diverse communities, since he and his team were visiting different places to gather stories and join forces. However, he found that everyone wanted a different way of working so it was difficult to collaborate, making the communities more divided than it already was. Mining operations were giving privilege to some communities more than others, even the environmentalists and lawyers. He had collaborators whom the local communities have spoken ill of, so he’s had to reflect on how to move forward, how best to engage with the communities and support them.
Sophie shared her experience curating a project related to the Permafrost which had to be postponed and finally stopped due to the effect of political landscapes on colonised communities. She thought when addressing environmental issues on an international scale, these would then transcend nation, state politics and others but they did not. (“The Future Eaters” Art Monthly. No.458, July – August 2022 pag.5)
Ecological issues, especially soil and its associations take time, while we humans work at a fast pace. Reflecting on how fast we move vs the expansive geological time that stretches far beyond human history, for me, it is the matter of how do we best address these ecological issues? This research period during Covid times has also thought me to be patient, to nurture relationships and to “wait for the dust to settle’. If we think of the action and effects of mining operations, time allows for a clearer look once things have calmed down. After this conversation took place, I started to look into UK historical mining sites for the next stage of my research.
Exploring the interconnectivity of the multiple questions raised in this conversation has helped me shape my knowledge and understanding around extractivism. It has also pushed me to explore different threads to my artistic development and opened new opportunities.
Arabel Lebrusan is currently studying MA Sculpture at the Royal College of Art. 2022-2023