From Copernicus to Cyberspace

 later project | prior project | From Copernicus to Cyberspace

Give History a Voice, Give Memory a History

A collection of Interviews of residents in and around Logan County, West Virginia who are effected by the changes in landscape through surface mining (Mattewan Massacre, Battle of Blair Mountain, Larry Gibson, Death of Larry Gibson, Mine wars, UMWA).



In 1920 in West Virginia, mining companies held miners and their families locked in hopeless servitude. Workers were financially enslaved by being paid with a company currency called “scrip”, and whole towns were owned and run by the corporations. In these company towns, even children worked the mines in order that their families could  stay afloat. On these terms, there was no way out other than organize and fight the system.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In 2011, during Occupy Wall Street, people went into the streets to protest the irresponsible handling of the mortgage crisis and the ensuing bail-outs, while entire nations went bankrupt. Banks considered “too big to fail” had capitalized on the financial disaster. High unemployment, along with few opportunities for a fair paycheck, are prevalent conditions in the western hemisphere. Yet the ensuing discussions call for lower pay for workers, in order that corporations, insurance companies and big banks stay competitive. The outsourcing of jobs continues apace, along with more calls to reduce a costly social security system. The ones who benefit from these entitlements are the ones who have the most to lose. The same neoliberal recipes for the greater good of society are being administered again and again. An unlimited supply of money from lobbyists keeps the politicians locked into close relationships with the global corporations. The elitist capitalist system allows the rest of us to choose the products we buy and consume, but not to enact our democratic will and protest for change. With these stories in mind, I went to West Virginia in 2011 in order to learn about the local history, the battles for social justice that were fought, and to witness for myself the results of the ongoing, large-scale surface mining that began there in the early 1980s. I was able to meet up with local activists and residents, to talk with them about the effects of strip mining, and to record their memories of the landscape that used to be.

I learned very quickly that, while the fight for social justice had been won, and that Unions still try to be the protector of those social rights, a new fight, on a different field, has ensued. The people are now losing their mountains to surface mining. A strange law, allowing a split between the right to own land and the right to own the minerals in the ground, has made it possible for mining companies to dig up one’s own backyard. Illiterate landowners in the 1900s sold their mineral rights to [the same?] coal companies, and in recent years these companies feel it is prime time to dig it up. The combined size of surface mining in 2012 equals the size of the state of Delaware, which is 6,447 sq. km. Detonations, dust plumes and the resulting disfiguration of the mountains reminded me more of a battlefield then a sleepy mountainous area in the American south. Talking to individuals whose families have lived there for over 300 years made it clear to me they are losing their homes at a rapid rate, and with it their entire history. Ghost towns and depopulation is the picture you get while driving through these mountain valleys.  The mining corporations don’t even stop at digging up family cemeteries. This economic death of towns seems to follow on ecological and personal ruin. Those who are displaced have no history to return to, and worst of all, they have no voice, and therefore no one will ever remember their history. Most of those who remain are underprivileged and work in those mines. The people who dare to speak up are continually harassed, and even shot at. Today is no different from the days of union organizing: it is still dangerous to stand up to the multinational mining companies. They have plenty of paid lawyers on hand and if that does not do the trick, they have the thugs at the ready to rough you up.

What can be done? While there are many activist groups taking on the fight and informing the public, it’s still a tough battle. It seems there is disagreement on how to go about confronting the mining companies, which makes it all the easier for an organized capital machine, which cares only about profit, to stay open for business.

What is my role in all of this? I record history; I tell stories and create new narratives. I guess being an activist is not my primary role, but seek to give voiceless people a voice, and give someone a documented history and a new narrative is one thing I can do. Therefore I started the project “Give History a Voice, Give Memory a History.” I use the stories I have collected and written, and distribute them in Frankfurt, New York, Mexico City as sculpture. After an initial visit, I went back in 2011, 2012 and this year again and interviewed people, asking simple questions such as: How did it happen? How did it used to look here? Do you remember when this mountain was still here? I attend group meetings, and try to meet the residents who are most affected, plugging in to their existing structures and activist networks, especially those who are able to work without fear and in this dangerous terrain. I hope the process of storytelling, the experience of my coming back to let them know they are not alone, will give them the encouragement to keep going on. But I am not sure about this.

For my proposed project for radio stations, I plan to create a series of public announcements to be broadcast in public spaces, such as train or subway stations, or in institutions, in order to air those memories. The goal is to give them a voice, to let them talk about the landscape, sacrificed just so we can turn on our radios, put on the lights, charge up our cell phones, start our computers and commute from point A to point B.

I ask participants to select some of their memories with me and help create a specific program around their ideas, so that I can announce them and help change history for the better. I hope to create a platform of documentation for that process and an archive of those stories, not only from Logan County but from all over, with whoever wants to have their stories told.

Mathias Kessler, 2011