Art Shining a Light on the Extractive Industry
August 10, 2021
A conversation with Sam Pelts, Director of "Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss," a project of the CODEX Foundation.
Elena Bouldin: The IPCC climate change report published yesterday painted a grim picture of the future. And not the remote future, but the near-term future. There is no time to keep discussing what needs to be done. If we don't want humanity to perish in a dying planet, we need to act now. I've been talking to many scientists in the past few months about climate change, the environment, sustainability. But the destruction of our environment is not just a matter of quantitative data. The hurt we have caused and are causing around us brings tremendous pain to our souls.
When Peter Koch told me about "Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss" – the project he co-pioneered and you helped turn into a reality – I was very much drawn to it. Precisely because it addresses this pain to our souls, to ourselves as human beings. At least that's the way I see it. But I'd love for you to describe what Extraction is and how it came to be.
Sam Pelts: I think what you said really resonates because I'm not a climate scientist and I think that one of the takeaways of yesterday’s report is that we don't necessarily need any more climate scientists because many experts have already pointed out what solutions are available to us. We've known what they are for decades. So now it’s a question of each of us using the talents we already possess to address the climate crisis. And it's a question of applying political pressure to the governments and institutions that make policies. That's where where the need is. And I think, that a lot of people who saw the report, or read headlines about the report yesterday, felt a lot of anxiety about that, a lot of eco anxiety and fear about the future. And one of the things that art is able to do is address the anxiety, or climate grief concerns that people have in a way that's productive. So you might, as an artist, find yourself drawn to Extraction project perhaps to reach other people, but also perhaps as a way to come to terms with your own grief and your own anxiety about environmental degradation and the ecological crisis that we've entered into.
But, to get back to your original question, the Extraction project came about because there's this place in Montana, in Butte, called the Berkeley Pit, which is an open pit mine that was in operation until about 1983. When they closed down the mine, they took the pumps out that were responsible for pumping the groundwater out of the pit mine. And so it slowly filled up over the next thirty five years with water that was rushing into the pit from the surrounding aquifer. And this water now is nine-hundred-something feet deep. And it's basically the most polluted body of water that you could possibly imagine. Our other co-founder, Edwin Dobb, passed away tragically in 2019. He was from Butte originally, and he was an environmental journalist. He wrote this beautiful, lyrical piece about the Berkeley Pit that talked about these instances where migrating snow geese would land on the pit because they thought it was just your average lake. And the next morning they'd find all these geese carcasses that had washed up because, basically, to drink the pit water burns your insides, killing you from the inside out.
The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana Source: Failure Magazine
Sam Pelts: The point is that greed and profit motivated these mining companies to create this environmental ruin that basically future generations are left to deal with. Because you have to deal with it in perpetuity. They've just figured out a way to filter the water that comes out of the pit. But it's something that you can never stop doing it because if it ever reaches what they call the “critical level,” then the water from the pit would start to seep out sideways into that aquifer and into the ground table, and would eventually pollute basically the entire Columbia River. So that was Peter and Ed's inspiration for the project, which spawned an exhibition about pit mining at the Missoula Art Museum. But then we expanded outward from that Montana hub, and now there's 60 or so art exhibitions that are happening all over the country and even abroad. I think there's a couple in Mexico and one in the U.K. as well. And they're all attempting to address their own “local Berkeley Pits.” So whatever local environmental issues are happening in your town, we welcome you to put together an exhibition about it with local artists and people who care about these things. The idea is to raise a ruckus, to use Ed's term.
The point is to actually generate this need for change, to inspire people to apply that pressure where it needs to be applied. Because a lot of people don't necessarily know that these things are happening so close to them. They think of climate change as something that affects future generations, or that a Superfund site is just some remote place where all this pollution has been carefully contained. And you don't know necessarily that it's right outside your community, just a couple of miles away, perhaps. These industrial waste sites are invisible to most people, but they're quite detrimental to the health of the local communities. So, that's just a few of the issues that the project is addressing.
In terms of the structure of Extraction, we've got all these local exhibitions happening all at the same time in different locations. And anyone who wants to be a part of it can join. There's no sort of centralized structure here. I'm the guy with the keys to the website and I write the newsletter, but anybody can participate as they see fit.
Elena Bouldin: So you don't reach out to people specifically, you wait for people to reach out to you?
Sam Pelts: It's some of both. We do a lot of outreach to artists that we want to get involved, and people find out about the project from their friends by word of mouth. News of the project seems to travel pretty easily to different artists who are working in this space. The other thing that we're trying to do is build an infrastructure and a community of artists. We want all these different artists to know each other and have each other's email addresses, and just be able to more easily create this network for collaboration. That was one of the secondary goals, or one of the things that came out of it that we weren't necessarily attempting to do from the get go. But I think one of the main benefits of this project is that it's brought artists working in the space a lot closer.
Garth Lenz, Tar Mine and Roads, Northern Alberta, Canada, 2010, photograph
Elena Bouldin: Do you encourage local artists to produce work inspired in their local Berkeley Pit equivalent, rather than doing work about places that are remote from them?
Sam Pelts: It doesn't have to be a local issue, people make art about what speaks to them. We've got plenty of people that do drawings of melting glaciers or ice sheets from Antarctica, and, obviously, they don't live in Antarctica. But, yeah, I think local is good. We've got exhibitions that not only deal with personal experience with issues in the community, but also with family history—with artists’ own heritage of interfacing with, sometimes even profiting from the extractive industries. For example, there are photographers involved in the project who have taken photos of these massive stumps of old growth trees that have been deforested a generation before by their own ancestors. There's also artists whose generational wealth came to their family through the mineral rights of their plot of land, which was either sold to the oil companies or there's some connection there, and some complicity there to extractive industry.
I think that's a way to draw people into it, because you don't want to necessarily make people who walk into an exhibition feel that it's “all their fault.” You don't want to blame folks or turn them off, from the get go. And so that's a way to draw people in. It's a way of expressing this awareness that we're all, whether we like it or not, utterly dependent on extractive industry. For example, even if you electrify the grid and come out with this new fleet of electric cars, the copper and the rare earth metals required, and everything else, are still taken from the ground. And there's ways that we can do that better, I think. And we're trying to draw attention to that.
Elena Bouldin: Right, you don't want to point a finger at someone specific because it's somehow everyone's fault. Tell me, how many artists are involved up to now with Extraction?
Sam Pelts: I haven't counted recently. but I would say between three hundred and four hundred. And there's a whole lot more who ended up in exhibitions that I haven't had a chance yet to put on the website as individual participants. But if you get to www.extractionart.org/participants, there's a whole list of participating artists, curators, and museums involved, and each of their names is linked to their personal website, too. So it's a great resource, I think, for people who are interested in finding out about these subjects.
Elena Bouldin: Yes, I agree. You said before that it's sort of both, that is, you sometimes reach out to people, and then sometimes people reach out to you. Could you maybe go into a little bit more detail? How exactly do artists who want to get involved get involved? Have you had any art gallery, or museum reach out to you and say, "hey, we want to host an exhibition of Extraction?
Sam Pelts: Yeah, that's definitely happened. Mostly it's just through email. You just email either email@example.com or my email, which is firstname.lastname@example.org. I've had museums or gallery directors contact me and say, "we heard about this thing that's happening this July and we're an Art Gallery in Billings, and we want to do something", or artists who had heard about the project from somebody who's in an exhibition and say "Oh, I have this work that relates to those themes. I'd like to get involved in the project".
It's just a lot of personal communication through email, phone, Zoom, and all the other ways in which we communicate these days. Earlier on, when we were just starting out, Ed was doing a lot of the outreach, and he would have these long, sprawling correspondences with essentially every environmental artist that he'd heard of. And he had some contacts, too, so he would very eloquently reach out to people through email. He had a talent for getting people to join our project. Then, after he passed away, I had a difficult time figuring out who he was corresponding with and how to get those connections reestablished. But once I sorted through all that jumble of emails, from that point on, it became a lot easier. And we were also well-established enough at that point that a lot of people would just find out about the project themselves and then contact me, which also makes things a lot easier.
Paccarik Orue, Tajo Raul Rojas, El Muqui series, 2013, archival pigment print
Elena Bouldin: Yes, I can imagine. So the project is about raising awareness and calling to action, but, what would you want your audience to take away from these exhibits?
Sam Pelts: I think despite recent warnings, a lot of people are still far too complacent, or they think that these issues are far away, either geographically or temporally. But one of the things art is good at doing is forcing us to construct meaning within our minds. That’s especially important today, since our political discourse has devolved into sloganeering and people seem to just want to know right away whether they're for or against something based on whether they're Democrat or Republican or, whatever their ideological line is, without actually thinking about issues themselves and coming to their own conclusions.
When you see a piece of art that addresses issues like extractive industry or climate change, it’s often not quite as simple as reading words on a page and sorting them into red and blue folders. When you look at a painting, you ask yourself “how does that make me feel? What is the issue being raised here? What does it ask of me, how am I complicit in this? Am I doing what I need to be able to look at future generations, our kids, in the eye?” I think art gets through to people more successfully in that way than an article in a newspaper.
Elena Bouldin: Are you saying that the role of artists is to make people aware that we have to take every problem that comes to us and think about it ourselves and evaluate how it aligns with our values?
Sam Pelts: Yeah, I think so. I think that's definitely a responsibility of artists, especially now. At this point there's not really a way to make art that isn't political in some way, especially in regards to the climate crisis, because it's this massive meta-object, like Modernity was for the 20th century. I think we’re at a point in which everything is going to be “about” climate in some way because its consequences are everywhere and in everything, and you can't escape that. I think we have a responsibility, particularly in this decade, because this is the crucial time for change. This is when we have all realized what's happening, we can no longer claim ignorance, and yet we still have a chance to mitigate the worst effects.
Elena Bouldin: Right, because we have about 12 years before we get to 1.5 degrees Celsius!
Sam Pelts: Exactly.
Jean Arnold, Berkeley Pit: Legacy (MT, copper), 2012, oil on canvas, 42 by 42 inches
Elena Bouldin: How has the project been received in places where it's been showcased?
Sam Pelts: The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, at least from what I have seen. However, I just had a phone call with a journalist who brought, I think, a really valid criticism to us. It may seem weird that I'm talking publicly about negative aspects about our project, but I think that actually helps me to do better moving forward. One of the ways that could make Extraction resonate more for communities is if we put renewed emphasis on local issues. For example, we’ve got this great show about the Berkeley Pit that's taking place in the Missoula Art Museum. And basically the question that I've had posed to me at least two or three times now is “why isn't it in Butte, which is where the Berkeley Pit actually is?” And it's just a natural outcome of the way the project is structured, where institutions that want to make an exhibition about something have basically free rein to do whatever they want to do. But I totally agree that it would be better to have something on view that would be more visible for that community. So far, I haven't been able to pin down a venue in that location.
But I'm still cautiously optimistic that something might happen there. I just think it’s important to let people talk about their community’s issues in a space that is actually viewed by members of that community. So there’s room for improvement on that front.
Elena Bouldin: I agree, if it is local, people connect to it more, and so it makes it even more powerful. And yet, I think that it’s good to reflect on problems from elsewhere too, because they often give you insights about your own community that perhaps you don’t see because you’re used to “the way things are”.
Sam Pelts: Yeah, totally.
Elena Bouldin: You were talking about ways to improve your project. I'm a strong advocate for education and empowerment of young people, so I was wondering if you had considered and would be interested in producing an Extraction more geared toward young people, sort of an “Extraction Junior”?
Sam Pelts: That's a great idea!
Elena Bouldin: My thought, although maybe I’m wrong, is that many artists who are starting out may be intimidated by the Extraction project that is up and running now because there's established artists participating and maybe they don't feel they’re up to their level. And yet, within a project specifically geared towards high school and college students, they may feel like they can share their perspective on this problem that they've lived with their whole lives.
Sam Pelts: Yeah, I think that's an excellent idea, because you're right, there's a lot of people that feel intimidated, and yet their point of view is interesting. I would like them to send me stuff. They don’t have to be a famous artist to be a part of this project. We want to reach as many people as possible. And younger generations, in general, are much more attuned to these issues, kind of for obvious reasons, because it's going to be our story to a greater extent than for middle-aged people or older folks. So, yeah, I definitely agree that we should be bringing younger artists on board. It’s a great idea.
Elena Bouldin: Well, then, we’ll have to meet again soon, so we can brainstorm and get to work.
Sam Pelts: That sounds great.
Elena Bouldin: Thank you so much for your time today, and for your work on Extraction.
Sam Pelts: Thank you too, it was a pleasure.
For more information on "Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss", visit the project's website.