In this exposition, I persist in keeping the concept of risk on the edge of death; I would like to arrive at the context of coal mines, where risk is integrated in the everyday life of a coal miner. For coal miners in coal mines, taking risk is not an option but a necessity. The coal mining industry has had progressive influence on industry, but the massive carbon dioxide emission from burning the coal continues to pose a threat to the environment and to life on Earth. On the other hand, sites of extraction, including those for coal mining, have created landscapes of their own that connect us to land by dramatic cuts through layers of earth. These ‘open wounds’,4 usually hidden from sight in urban centres, remind us of where our lives are rooted and how we have been fed by its resources from the very emergence of life on Earth.
These dramatic landscape and underground tunnels have also been the sites of tragic events. It was on 4thof May 2017 that the Zemestan-Yurt coal mine disaster in northern Iran took the lives of many coal miners. There was an explosion at the depth of 1200 meters when miners were trying to power a locomotive. The explosion destroyed the tunnel, trapping many miners, who were then exposed to the poisonous gases. This accident is just one flash of a story from a thick book of the deaths of thousands of miners each year all around the world. The stories of coal mine accidents, from the Honkeiko colliery mining disaster in 1942 in China – the largest mining accident to date, which killed 1549 miners5 – the Courrières coalmine disaster in 1906 in France, where the total death toll was 1099; the Mitsubishi Hojyo disaster in 1914 in Japan, which left 687 dead; the Senghenydd colliery disaster of 1913 in the United Kingdom; the Caolbrook mine disaster of 1960 in South Africa with 435 deaths, Wankie colliery disaster in Zimbabwe in 1972 with more than 400 deaths, Dhanbad coal mine disaster of 1965 in India with 375 deaths; Monongah disaster of 1907 in the US with 362 deaths, and many others,6 to the most recent coal mine accident (at the time of writing) on 19thof January 2019 in Shaanxi province in China,7 give us an intense world map of coal mine disasters and a sense of how widespread and frequent such tragic events are. While these events are called coal mine “accidents”, many of them are due to a lack of legislation and regulations around safety issues and workers’ rights and could be described as human crafted accidents as a result of an exploitative form of labour and lack of care. In addition to such “accidents”, coal miners are also subject to the more gradual decline of health and body. Not only is the posture required for mining work harmful to workers’ bodies; there is a more dangerous health condition due to the inhalation of coal mine dust; called coal-workers’ pneumoconiosis,8 or black lung,9 it can lead to premature death.
Unlike the risk in artistic process, the risk that miners take every day is not an optional mode of artistic engagement, but a necessity for survival. To descend into the ground every day is to embrace risk – the risk of sudden events of explosion, collapse, or the risk of gradual death due to coal dust residue in the lungs. However, it is in these risky and hazardous environments that the most radical workers movements have taken shape. Major documented movements, from the miners strikes of 1984-85 in Britain10 to the strikes against the privatization plans in central China at the Hunan Coal Industry Group in 2009,11 exhibit how such dark and deep spaces underground, have turned a harsh, oppressive and exploitative working environment into a revolutionary ground.
In such a landscape, where risk is ever-present and closely integrated in every second of the coal miners’ lives, as is an ongoing resistance to the exploitative form of labour, coal miners craft these black things with their irregular shapes, each of them a masterpiece in its own right, containing the fragility and vulnerability of the worker’s body, the stories of explosions, workers’ movements, and a geological history of Earth.
The mine is the political summary of Earth. It is a scene for performing risky labour, for resistance, strikes, explosions, dust. It is a site for the echoing of poems lost in the reverberation of a piece of coal hitting the ground. The mine is an underground infrastructure that exposes the fragility of many actors and performers who risk their lives, and yet claim control over their lives by defying the authorities. Mines are not the locus of oppressed lives, where coal miners struggle with their precarious life conditions, but an underground infrastructure through which they perform an authentic subversive life; they live their outrage. Elissa Washuta depicts such underground life far beyond the soul act of digging; she renders it as a complex political life and writes:
“Anthracite miners would routinely strike, defy authority, repeat that “A miner is his own boss,” and walk out when they decided the day’s work was done. And the digging was never simple: every move was a decision that could result in death. The miners took pride in propping the roof with wooden beams, in the drilling of holes, in the preparation of explosives, in the blasting, and in the picking of loosened coal. This was a set of decisions and actions they thought of as craft.”12
It is in the coal mines, in their caverns and corridors, that the constant digging gives rhythm to life in darkness. The mine’s darkness is materialized in chunks of coals, in coal-miners’ dusty bodies, in their black lungs. Here, in the persisting event of death, in the event of being buried underground, the story of the birth of the universe, of Earth, is being told, dug, kept, written and read, over and over again, by the miners.
In her “Insomnia: Viewing Ecologies of Spatial Becoming-With,” Karin Reisinger describes mining areas as the outcome of ‘a complex relation of needs and practices’ that transform the landscape.13 While she studies the cases of LKAB mines of Kiruna or Malmberget in northern Sweden, she renders them as an assemblage consisting of:
‘natural deposits, tools, technologies, machines, wheels, vehicles, huge amounts of energy, legal designations, profits and investments, infrastructure, workers, workers’ dwellings, health systems, social implementations, educational assessments, archives, literature, exhibitions, and guided tours. It also consists of open wounds in the landscape and cavities underground, water systems, electrical lighting and control systems, safety measures, and chemicals affecting human and nonhuman life.’14
Such an assemblage is the site of storytelling, where such elements play important roles in the risky activity of coal mining. It is in this assemblage that I would like to construct a story, where the coal miner speaks from the centre of the geological history of Earth.
In this exposition, I situate the discussion of risk in coal mines, investigating the work of coal miners as a craftthrough which they develop subversive modes of labour. The story in this exposition starts millions of years ago and offers a fictional geological history of Earth, where the formation of coal plays an important role in the planet’s evolution. In this evolution, various moments of risk lead us down into a coal mine. Instead of focusing on how coal has come into existence as the basis of industrialization, I discuss how the evolution of the earth has created dark and deep spaces where the miner as a political and undermined worker has come to the scene of political resistance against exploitation, domination and the oppressive power hierarchy of the world. In this account, the evolution of Earth progresses in moments of risk that have left fragments of death in the layers of Earth. These fragments of death are materialized through dark and black strata and underground spaces as coal mines.
To situate this artistic work in the field of geology, I have used the book The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet,by Robert M. Hazen. The story of coal mines starts from the Marble Earth, a period that is imagined and inserted after the chapter ‘Black Earth’ in the diagram presented by Hazen.15 Through a vertical structure poised on the edge of death and life, and by means of writing and drawing, risk is experimented with using concepts such as imprecision, the materiality of darkness, and the fragility of working with such materiality.
This work is exposed through a vertical storytelling, starting from the sky and descending deep into the coal mine. I have used imprecise drawings as the method of a performative storytelling, where imprecision and chance are a way of opening up possibilities for storytelling. Such imprecision, borrowed from the dissident architects of the Soviet era, where watercolours were used to challenge and question the State language of architectural representation,16 leads the story of the evolution of the Earth.