Rethinking Mine Remediation via transformative experimental art practice

Louise Fowler-Smith, Ainslie Murray, Christiane Keys-Statham and Ros Taplin write about how since 2010, when the Strategic Framework for Managing Abandoned Mines in the Minerals Industry was released, the Australian government, together with state government departments, communities and private companies have been reconsidering ways to rehabilitate and remediate around 50,000 former mine sites.

In the last two decades, a number of innovative artist-led projects have developed through collaborations between artists, architects, landscape architects, curators, scientists, engineers and communities. These projects in Europe and North America have involved the remediation and regeneration of former mining sites, which are contaminated and often environmentally depleted. The creation of parks, community gardens, exhibition spaces (both indoor and outdoor) and art parks on land that has been damaged through mining has provided opportunities to rehabilitate not only the land, but also the community that mining has impacted. The confluence of art, environmental technology and social engagement on these sites acts as a remedy of sorts - a new form of experimental, transdisciplinary practice – which is transformative in the broadest sense, simultaneously benefiting both environment and community. In this article, we examine examples of these projects, which have resulted in significant transformations. In examining them, we ask what possibilities might exist for similar projects in Australia. The prevalence of derelict mine sites in our country might be recast as a creative opportunity in this new field of artistic practice.

Since 2010, when the Strategic Framework for Managing Abandoned Mines in the Minerals Industry was released by the Ministerial Council on Mineral and Petroleum Resources and the Minerals Council of Australia, the Australian government, together with state government departments, communities and private companies have been reconsidering ways to rehabilitate and remediate around 50,000 former mine sites. These abandoned mines are defined in the Framework as: "mines where mining leases or titles no longer exist, and responsibility for rehabilitation cannot be allocated to any individual, company or organisation responsible for the original mining activities". While there are several governmental programs in place to address the issue of derelict mines, there doesn't appear to be any visionary approach to remediation. A sense of restoration may be achieved through soil rehabilitation and plantings of native species, and while this approach addresses aspects of the environmental damage of mining, it generally does not address the ongoing impact that cessation of mining operations may have on local communities. In short, remediation practices to date in Australia have not generally been transformative in a broader sense.

The problem of un-remediated and derelict mine sites is not limited to Australia. However, the geographic context of mining in Australia is quite different from other parts of the world – the immense scale of the landscape and the remoteness of many mining operations alone present a formidable combination of complexities for which there is no easy resolution – this complexity combined with broader issues of Indigenous habitation and ownership is unique to our land and our culture. In addition to large scale mining sites and issues there are also the remains of many small-scale operations. A great many derelict mine sites are in very close proximity to urbanised populations. In Broken Hill, for example, we find derelict mining sites and tailings dams just hundreds of metres from residential areas, quite literally over the back fence. Ordinary people live in proximity to these sites. Children play nearby, life goes on – but that a potentially contaminated derelict mine is part of the everyday urban landscape is clearly problematic. In thinking about ways to address such sites in Australia we may look to international projects for inspiration and methods about what to do, and how.

Some examples of innovative, transformative projects include the AMD&Art project in Pennsylvania, the C-Mine complex in Belgium, and Emscher Park in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. These and other projects across the world have been initiated in recent years, the result of the inspiration and collaborative work of creative practitioners and experts in science and technology who have worked together with various levels of government and communities in order to bring their plans to fruition. They have involved transdisciplinary practice – experimental, collaborative practice that is “impelled by external conditions” in the words of Jill Bennett, Director of the National Institute of Experimental Art. The external condition of an abandoned mine site presents very different and complex problems in each individual context involving social, economic, political and environmental issues.

The small town of Vintondale in Pennsylvania, USA, began undergoing a transformation in 1994 with the establishment of AMD&Art – Acid Mine Drainage and Art – a not-for-profit organisation founded by Dr T. Allan Comp, a historian now working in the US Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining. Growing from the earth/land art tradition of the 1960s, the project involved collaboration between artists, engineers and scientists, along with the entire community of Vintondale. The town, with a population of around 500 people, was a former coal-mining community, and its landscape had become severely affected by acid mine drainage, with waterways containing a toxic mix of iron, sulphate and other metals affecting local plant and animal life.

The AMD&Art project’s main aim was to remediate a 35-acre section of land, creating a combined water treatment facility and public space. The aim of the project was clearly stated in the organisation’s publicity: “Artfully transforming environmental liabilities into community assets”, encapsulating the three aspects of all successful artist-led remediation projects: art, environment and community (www.amdandart.org). AMD&Art built a series of passive treatment ponds that flow into a seven-acre wetland area, before emptying into the main creek. The park functions as an outdoor sculpture park and a green public space for the community and many tourists, who are drawn to the area by the fame and innovation of the project. Relics of colliery buildings and mining equipment have been left to stand amongst the trees and other elements of the green space, as a reminder of the area’s history.

When T. Allan Comp and his core team (which included hydrologist Bob Deason, sculptor Stacy Levy and landscape designer, Julie Bargman) began this project, their first action was to effectively undo the unsympathetic remediation attempts of a government-initiated Rural Abandoned Mineland Project from the early 1980s. This earlier project had involved the abandoned mine site being covered or capped with a large expanse of raw or waste coal, which was four to eight feet deep across the site. This was painstakingly removed by AMD&Art before the creation of the passive treatment ponds and wetlands.

The artistic ingredients of this project are numerous: the concept itself, the landscape design and the installation of both temporary and permanent art works on site. The innovation of the project lies in its conjoining of art, science and participatory design. Community cultural development is an integral part of the AMD&Art project, and without the involvement of residents, the project would not have been successful in its implementation or longevity. The inherently experimental aspects of art-making lend themselves to remediation projects that stretch over many years and require creative solutions to complex problems.

Measuring the success of such a project is a difficult endeavor, due to its diverse and long-term aims. The project won the 2005 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Phoenix Award, the first national EPA Brownfields award presented for community impact on mine-scarred lands, along with other awards for green design and wetlands creation. Today, the site attracts ten of thousands of bicyclists a year, along with hikers and other visitors. The community’s sense of place has been restored, with their Town Planning Commission restarted after 30 years of inactivity. The project is undoubtedly a roaring success. AMD&Art not only responded to or reflected an external condition, but it has actually improved it.

Another project that involved remediation of a mine site is C-Mine, in Genk, Belgium. C-Mine is a regional cultural hub transformed from the former Winterslag coalmine – its numerous buildings repurposed by Brussels-based architects 51N4E. This converted mine, re-opened in 2010 as a cultural attraction for the region. It encompasses exhibition spaces, hotels, music venues, office spaces and parkland. Many of the original industrial buildings and equipment still stand in their place, with green spaces growing around them, although much was rebuilt or structurally improved (http://www.architectural-review.com/8651227.article).

Showcasing industrial heritage is not a new approach. The repurposing of industrial buildings into art museums has taken place across the world from the UK (Tate Modern) to Sydney (Casula Powerhouse); actual former mine sites, however, such as the C-Mine, require active remediation in the form of decontaminating soil, cleaning waterways, and removal of toxic substances. In this case, the architects worked in collaboration with local government, the Genk Council and Mayor, artists, designers and local historians to bring the project to life. C-Mine recently won the 2013 Flemish Monument Award ((designinbelgium.drupalgardens.com/content/c-mine-genk-receives-flemish-monument-award).

Following the success of the C-Mine project, nearby, another former coalmine in Genk, the Waterschei complex, will become Thor Park, a centre for science, technology and renewable energy research. This site hosted Manifesta 9 in 2012, the itinerant European contemporary art biennial. The exhibition, titled The Deep of the Modern, related directly to its site. Thirty-five international artists were invited to create new work, responding to the locale and relating regional issues to the global ones. Alongside the new work, a historic, museum-display style section exhibited mining-related works from the 19th and 20th centuries, and a third part of the exhibition examined the legacy of coal mining in the Limburg region.

Manifesta 9 had mixed reviews. Some felt that the theme of the biennial was successful (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/aug/06/manifesta-9-art-mining-rich-seam), but the lasting impact of an exhibition like this on the local community or the landscape itself is questionable. One reviewer felt that “the tension between local concerns and international aspirations effect[ed] some awkward results” (Chris Clarke, Art Monthly, July-August 2012, 24-25). Manifesta 9 was a very different project to AMD&Art: it was temporary, initiated by international curators rather than visual artists, and attempted to use the mining heritage of the site to posit broader questions on the state of the environment, capitalism and global economics. In the long term, the transformation of the site as Thor Park will provide enduring benefits to the community, and as a host to events like Manifesta, the site will also maintain itself as a dynamic, experimental hub within the landscape.

The Ruhr Valley was the heartland of Germany’s mining industry until the 1970s, when international steel and coal markets shifted and mines began to close. The brownfields of the Ruhr Valley presented a huge challenge for remediation, and the Emscher River, running through the Ruhr, became the focus for Europe’s largest remediation project. The river flows for 218 miles through 17 different local authorities. As a result of the extensive mining and industrialisation of the area, the river had become severely contaminated, carrying both human and industrial waste. In 1989, the Internationale Bauaustellung (IBA) Emscher Park was formed by the State Government of North Rhine-Westphalia, and the major restoration program commenced.

The two objectives of the project were to repair the environmental damage to the landscape and to design urban communities of the future. Over a decade, IBA Emscher Park hosted workshops, international design competitions and public planning sessions, stimulating participatory design in the creation of over 100 separate projects on five different sites, covering 800 square kilometres between Duisburg and Kamen. Innovative architectural designs were created during these workshops, and the involvement of local communities ensured that the final results responded to regional needs, creating a sense of place whilst celebrating the region’s industrial heritage.

Some mining companies in Australia are already involved in creative projects directed towards positive change. Rio Tinto is collaborating with Fremantle-based arts organization DADAA Inc., to realise a project addressing mental health in rural communities (au.artshub.com/au/news-article/news/arts/dynamite-for-art-rio-tinto-invests-196258). Harnessing the skills of miners and the knowledge of Indigenous leaders, artists will work towards creating large-scale public art works. Arts Victoria is also joining in, with its Small Towns Transformation project funding towns such as Neerim and Dookie, where an old mining quarry will be repurposed to a performance and projection space (www.theage.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/mining-for-art-in-regional-victoria-20130528-2n9of.html). In New South Wales, the town of Broken Hill is a thriving artistic centre, with many galleries and museums celebrating its mining history. This year it will play host to an outpost of the Sydney Fringe Festival (www.brokenhillfringe.com). Research in the field is being undertaken by the University of Queensland’s Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation, the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS, the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment, and the Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation at the University of South Australia, among others.

The small Australian creative projects associated with mining are a good start, but there is still much to do. With visual artists and creative practitioners working together with scientists and engineers, and in association with local communities, the resulting benefits can include social and cultural revitalization as shown by successful projects in the US and Europe. The pioneering Vintondale AMD&ART project in Pennsylvania, along with Emscher Park and the C-Mine complex, show that adopting a transdisciplinary approach to mine remediation can provide 'a new arena large enough to include the interests and concerns of an entire community and create a delightful and interesting public place’ (www.greenmuseum.org/generic_content.php?ct_id=189).