Geofractions, Art and Extractivism

The history of mining, like the devastation it leaves in its wake, is commonly overlooked in the strategic amnesia that accompanies stories of technological progress.

Kate Crawford, Atlas of AI

Geofractions is a project that aims to give a unique sensory experience of the processes and infrastructure of oil shale extraction and energy use that is often shadowed from public view. While we have grown familiar with the visual language of mined landscapes, how often are we able to immerse ourselves into time and space dimension of extractive processes through the auditory? As a ‘sonic journey’ this project takes us from underground mining and transport, to the consumption and residual waste, that generates and sustains the energy infrastructure we depend on. All of this process transforms the whole of the landscape in which it takes place. The current outcome is part of a long term sonic and geographic survey of Ida-Virumaa that started in 2009.

The Geofractions installation is based on a rough scale model of the thin geological oil shale layer (graptolitic argillite and kukersite deposits) with a crudely scrawled map of Ida-Virumaa, the northeastern territory in Estonia where the mining takes place. The symbolic geological face rests on a base of speakers and transducers (sonic shakers) that will induce vibrations from underneath. The sound source is an extended composition made from field recordings from extractive and residual mining processes in Ida-Virumaa. The 100 minute long piece represents 1 minute for every year since industrial scale production of oil shale started, back in 1921.

Geofractions sound installation at the “Life in Decline” exhibition

The physical installation has been included in the “Life in Decline” exhibition, held from 17th of June until 3rd of October 2021 at the Estonia Mining Museum in Kohtla-Nõmme, Estonia. In the words of the exhibition curator, anthropologist Francisco Martínez:

This exhibition reflects on the fragility of the things we construct and engages with what is going on in a condition described as in decline or broken… We propose to observe ways of inhabiting decline and brokenness, showing concern about the care that our vulnerable world needs… This region stands as a living laboratory where Estonia’s future is at stake, answering to key issues such as the sustainable use of natural resources, social integration, rural-urban cleavage and the maintenance of infrastructures… Decline provides a cognitive structure and an embodied experience that is contagious through affect; It multiplies itself through dereliction and neglect. In turn, we explore how things endure in a context of negative capability and exhausted ecologies, as well as the adaptive processes of living with the leftovers of modernity.

Francisco Martinez
Geofractions, detail

For more than 10 years I have been gathering soundscapes from the northeastern region of Estonia known as Ida-Virumaa where there has been intensive industrial resource extraction through the mining of ‘oil shale‘. This process has been going on for just over 100 years and has caused extensive landscape alteration (along with complex histories of labor that include Soviet era population migration and Nazi forced labour camps during the second world war). The residual tailing hills are a common sight that can be seen from many angles in the region. They form a stark contrast to the normally flat landscapes of the northern Baltic plane along with the large scale facilities used for various industrial production processes of oil shale that ofter form the core of many towns.

Geological stratum as Induction surface and Ida-Virumaa territorial map

Over the years I’ve had a growing interest in understanding this ‘anthropocene’ landscape as a unique human altered phenomenon where the sonic aspects help define the specific character of the region. From a visual perspective we are generally confronted with more of the historical and residual effects of mining, developed infrastructure, tailing hills, soviet townships etc. But with sound we are situated within active processes; the labour, machinery, transport, processing and the multi-layered soundscapes that accompany the industry as a whole. Listening here is less about the fractured abstraction of quantified materiality associated with mining and more a search to identify with our own geographic and geological transformation. Metaphorically, the past century of continual detonations, transport, sorting and burning of oil shale has deep resonances within the culture, from the planned cities and their displaces inhabitants to our complete reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels. Anyone with a mild awareness of current event knows these factors also resonate deep within Estonian national politics, from large scale infrastructure investments and subsidies to the identity divide of Russians who populate the region (forming much of the mining workforce). Even the slightest shift in policies can have tectonic consequences.

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