Waging Image Wars in “Extraction, Art on the Edge of the Abyss”

David Maisel, Copper Mine 1, Chuquicamata, Atacama, Chile, 2018. Archival Pigment Print.

David Maisel
David Maisel, Copper Mine 1, Chuquicamata, Atacama, Chile, 2018. Archival Pigment Print.
How Artists Find Beauty in Chaos in Hope of Inciting Change

How Artists Find Beauty in Chaos in Hope of Inciting Change

David Maisel

David Maisel, Lithium Processing 3, Salar del Carmen, Antofagasta Region, Chile, 2018. Archival Pigment Print.

“Part of the problem in confronting climate change is the invisibility of the causes. Extraction is at the root of all environmental problems, including climate change. Artists have the power to show us, in a very real way what that looks like.”

Sam Pelts

Natural and unnatural disasters have been the source of inspiration for artists since Mount Vesuvius erupted covering the southern Italian city of Pompeii with ash in 79 AD and perhaps, even earlier. Beauty can be found amidst destruction and artists are uniquely positioned to see connections and create order when others only find chaos. But there is a gulf between seducing us with the patterns found in the ruins of environmental degradation and the enlightenment that must precede the action to do something about it. Extraction, Art on the Edge of the Abyss is a global consortium of artists, galleries, museums, and environmental activists that intend to bridge that gulf.

As the effects of climate change become increasingly undeniable, the impacts; polluted ground water, frequent floods interspersed with longer droughts, never ending wildfires, bigger and more catastrophic storms; are being driven in large part by extraction technologies removing vast amounts of resources from the earth. To maintain our consumer-based culture we must acquire our fuel and precious minerals necessary for anything requiring a computer chip by digging or pumping or flushing or exploding vast areas, leaving scars on the land like open wounds.

Photographer David Maisel, who has made natural resource extraction and its consequences his focus for nearly thirty years, is one of the more than 500 artists included in the Extraction, Art on the Edge of the Abyss. He shows us what environmental devastation looks like. His series Desolation Desert on the transformation of Chile’s vast Atacama Desert into an unworldly landscape is both painterly and horrifying.

“On behalf of the Land and everything living on it, new image wars must be waged.” —Lucy Lippard

In 2017, two visionaries from Montana, journalist Edwin Dobbs and fine art book printer/editor Peter Koch, founder of the nonprofit Codex Foundation, established the Extraction Project. Defined as “a global art movement in defense of the planet” it faced challenges, but the stakes could not be higher. It is fitting that both men were from Montana. That state is home to over sixteen Superfund sites, some of the largest in the country. These areas and other international sites are so polluted and hazardous to human health that some have been designated “Sacrifice Zones,” land and water irretrievably lost, no longer able to support life. Maisel’s aerial photography, the interlinked series Black Maps, The Mining Project, and American Mine explore sites, including the Berkeley Mine in Butte, Montana whose surreal colors belie the fact that the open pit is filled with poisoned water a mile deep and nine hundred feet wide. It brings the theme close to home for Peter Koch.

Dobbs died in 2019 and although Koch is battling cancer, he was able to build out a massive infrastructure of resources and like-minded cultural collaborators who would, “raise a ruckus” to move beyond politics and use art to motivate people “to confront the abyss with your whole being.” One of Koch’s collaborators representing the next generation of artist/activists is Sam Pelts. Pelts studied fine art conservation and was looking for an internship when he found a mentor in Peter Koch. Now, following a whirlwind year of organizing successful exhibitions under the Extraction Project umbrella, Pelts is poised to carry the programming into the future.

We spoke to Pelts, whose official title is Special Projects Director, as the final exhibits of Extraction in 2021 were ending. Pelts told us, “Part of the problem in confronting climate change is the invisibility of the causes. Extraction is at the root of all environmental problems, including climate change. Artists have the power to show us, in a very real way what that looks like.” Since the fine art of letter press printing was Peter Koch’s expertise, Pelts said, “We kicked off the project by pairing twenty-six notable poets, artists, and writers with an equal number of highly regarded letterpress printers from four countries.” Famed Canadian writer Margaret Atwood agreed to participate as did 2019 Pulitzer Prize winners Forrest Gander and Eliza Griswold. “Each was invited to produce a broadside/print for a limited editioned portfolio titled WORDS on the Edge which is being sold to raise funds for the project.”

Installation of I Am the Change by Jetsonorama.
Ben Knight.

Installation of I Am the Change by Jetsonorama. Photograph by Ben Knight.

David Maisel, Tailings Pond 2, Minera Centinela, Copper Mine, Antofagasta Region, Atacama Desert, Chile, 2018.
David Maisel

David Maisel, Tailings Pond 2, Minera Centinela, Copper Mine, Antofagasta Region, Atacama Desert, Chile, 2018. Archival Pigment Print.

David Maisel, Copper Mine 1, Chuquicamata, Atacama, Chile, 2018.
David Maisel

David Maisel, Copper Mine 1, Chuquicamata, Atacama, Chile, 2018. Archival Pigment Print.

David Maisel, The Mining Project, Butte, Montana 3, 1989.
David Maisel

David Maisel, The Mining Project, Butte, Montana 3, 1989. Archival Pigment Print.

David Maisel, The Mining Project, Inspiration, Arizona 4, 1989.
David Maisel

David Maisel, The Mining Project, Inspiration, Arizona 4, 1989. Archival Pigment Print.

Cover image for the Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss catalog and exhibition guidebook.
David Maisel

Cover image for the Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss catalog and exhibition guidebook.

This early color image of the earth taken in 1967 was used as the cover image for the first edition of Whole Earth Catalog.
David Maisel

This early color image of the earth taken in 1967 was used as the cover image for the first edition of Whole Earth Catalog.

Erika Osborne, Split Estates, 2016. 
Erika Osborne

Erika Osborne, Split Estates, 2016.

Ilja Herb, Fallen.
Ilja Herb

Ilja Herb, Fallen.

Sarah Christianson, Dakota Access Pipeline.
Sarah Christianson

Sarah Christianson, Dakota Access Pipeline.

Nevada Museum of Art.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Nevada Museum of Art.

By the end of 2021 The Extraction Project had produced over sixty exhibitions, performances, installations, land art, street art, poetry readings, and cross-media events. A catalogue was created for the exhibitions that functions as a guidebook to this multi-layered art movement. It was inexpensively produced, modeled on the style of the iconic, 1960s counterculture publication The Whole Earth Catalogue.

A comprehensive directory of the sites on the Extraction website reveals the geographic and cultural scope of the initiative. As Pelts modestly told us, “I’m only a facilitator. The project was largely self-determined. Each artist, curator, gallery or institution participated as they saw fit.” Pelts pointed to the work of fine art photographer Garth Lenz as “having a powerful effect on me, seeing the aerial views of the toxic sludge of the Alberta Tar Sands compared to the pristine boreal forest surrounding it.” Garth’s large scale, vivid color photographs mounted on a gallery wall are a perfect example how art can attract the viewer, seducing us to look, drawing us in, and then upon closer consideration of the subject, a feeling of shocked dismay invades our consciousness when we realize exactly what we are seeing.

Peltz reminds us, “merely bearing witness is not enough…the history of art making has a moral weight behind it. Indigenous artists, shaman had the ability to visualize the future…we have the problem of a lack of imagination. It is a cultural problem in the way we view the world.” Over 500 artists felt compelled to participate in the Extraction Project. An extensive list of all the participants; artists, venues, curators, etc. continues to grow while word of this movement spreads.

The Nevada Museum of Art is a national leader in the exhibition, collection and study of environmentally related art and has agreed to archive all Extraction Project documentation. As plans evolve carrying the campaign into 2022 and beyond, Sam Pelts reflects, “The act of artmaking can be a relief. The project has given me a way to seek a sense of purpose. Hope is crucial. We have to find a way to cultivate that in our own lives.”

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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