The Art of Extraction

The teacher assembles a collection of
chocolate-chip cookies and toothpicks. This is how the elementary
school children are supposed to learn about the costs associated with
coal mining. Each cookie is a mining property. The students each
receive $19 in play money, which they use to buy these properties. They
examine the cookies closely to determine which ones to buy. They map
their cookies. They buy mining equipment in the form of paperclips and
toothpicks. Each minute spent extracting a chocolate chip costs $1. The
chips that they do not surreptitiously eat can be sold for $2 apiece.
When they are finished, the students must restore their property to its
original condition using only their tools, a process that also costs
money. Only after this labor can they determine their profits - and the
costs of the mining process.

At first blush, this classroom exercise seems innocent enough. What
better way to convey the importance of coal in young minds than to
associate the black gold with chocolate chips, perhaps the most
valuable commodity elementary school children can imagine.

The exercise becomes considerably less innocent when you learn that
it's part of a series of lesson plans that the American Coal
Foundation, an industry organization, distributes to schools.

It becomes even less innocent through juxtaposition in poet Mark Nowak's powerful new book Coal Mountain Elementary.
Nowak places these lesson plans next to two other sources: news
accounts of coal mining accidents in China and excerpts from the
verbatim testimony of miners, rescue workers, and families connected to
the Sago, West Virginia mine disaster of January 2006. These are the
true costs of coal mining, measured not in swallowed chocolate chips
but in human lives.

"This American Coal Foundation, supported by Big Coal, proposed to
tell the nation about coal and coal mining," Mark Nowak said recently
in a presentation sponsored by Split This Rock and the Institute for Policy Studies.
"They produced lesson plans for teachers to teach students about
mining. These plans never mentioned unions. Never mentioned anything
environmental. Never mentioned deaths."

Together with the graphic artists and activists in the Beehive Collective,
Mark Nowak is committed to revealing the true costs of coal mining. His
words and the Collective's images strip away the benign picture
propagated by the extraction industry and reveal the real dirt

The Beehive

Coal mining kills miners - in accidents or through debilitating
diseases like black lung. But the costs must also be calculated in
terms of what we do to our air, land, and water. Mountain-top mining in
the southern Appalachians, for instance, has turned 400,000 acres of
forested mountains in the eastern United States into lunar landscapes.

The Beehive Collective,
a group of graphic artists who have worked together since 2000, wants
to rip the top off mountaintop removal. In their graphic The True Cost of Coal: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Our Future,
the Collective has created a vast panorama that begins and ends with
harmonious nature: animals playing musical instruments, working
collaboratively, and respecting the environment. In between, however,
is a disaster. Earth-moving machines tear the top off a mountain to
extract the coal underneath. Plumes of exhaust dirty the atmosphere.
Runoff poisons the water. Crass consumerism chokes the city. The
graphic, which stretches about eight feet across and four feet high in
its banner form, suggests that we can restore the state of nature that
existed before mountaintop removal - and humanity's other predatory
acts - if we reconnect to the land.

It's a vision of heaven and hell worthy of a medieval painter.
Indeed, with their monumental black-and-white works, the Collective has
updated the art of the triptych. Like Hieronymus Bosch'sThe Garden of Earthly Delights,
the coal graphic is crammed with imagery that requires careful scrutiny
and an accompanying guide to decode the symbolic content. It offers a
three-part narrative of paradise, temptation, and damnation. And it is
infused with a moral fervor that confronts the viewer with stark
choices about how to live one's life.

Unlike Bosch, though, the Collective views their work as a
collaborative project. "We find out in a research trip what would be
the most useful things to put in a graphic for community
organizations," says Brandon B. "Twelve to 20 bees work on the graphic.
The people in communities are also collaborators. We continue the
process of bouncing ideas off communities - to be as effective as we
can be. Also, all our graphics are anti-copyright. They're black and
white so that they can be reproduced as much as possible."

The graphics are black-and-white, but the overall message, because
of the often messy complexity of the picture, has some interesting gray
areas. Consider the representation of activists in The True Cost of Coal.
Anti-coal mining activists have flocked to Appalachia to protest the
despoliation of communities and nature. The Beehive Collective has
represented these activists as rabbits and turtles, both parachuting in
from the outside. The rabbit wears a mortar board from college
graduation and is equipped for direct action. The turtle comes from an
anarchist media outfit. One might be a little too quick to leap into
action; the other might retreat into its shell and miss the bigger
picture. However we decide to run the race, the Collective suggests, we
must be aware of the consequences of our actions.

Going Public

The True Cost of Coal is only one of the many works
produced by the Beehive Collective. It has tackled free trade, Plan
Colombia, and biotechnology. And the Bees travel widely as part of
their efforts to take art to the people and make art with people. Their
art is made in public, for the public, and, at least in part, by the
public. The mountaintop graphic was commissioned by Provisions Library
as part of its series of public works entitled Brushfire.

Mark Nowak is also committed to bringing his art into the world at
large. He has recently returned from conducting poetry workshops with
workers in South Africa. Usually he does two-hour workshops. But the
response from the South African union was overwhelmingly enthusiastic:
They signed him up to do two eight-hour workshops.

At his blog, Nowak
continues his effort to shine more light on mine disasters. The blog
entries record the daily toll in lives at coal mining accidents around
the world. "People come to the site looking for more information about
a disaster in their community," Nowak says. "Then they see that there
are other accidents in the world. It gets people to think, to rescale
from the local and national frame to a more global framework."

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