Preserving Sites of Exploitation of Natural Resources as National Monuments
These works consist of aerial images of the largest man made objects in North America, strip mines. These are some of the only man-made objects which can be seen from space. It is proposed that these sites be preserved as National Monuments, that we create National Parks at the site of these greatest modifications of the earth, the greatest earth works yet produced; the strip mines of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the great slag heaps of the Sault Saint Marie and the Masabi Range and Detroit, the open pit mines of the Southwest. These sites should be preserved before they are disguised or destroyed. They are the greatest possible manifestation of the extent of our modification of the environment.

Santa Rita Copper Mine, Silver City, New Mexico
view from the West
The digital video and still images are taken from my aircraft which has been modified to permit aerial photography. They might be exhibited along with containers of the ore mined at the site. The containers of ore are an attempt to create a form of experience of the site and point back to the site in a non-specific way, reminiscent of Robert Smithson's non-sites, but without the embellishment of the sculptural containers which he produced. I would be looking for something far more neutral, like plastic storage boxes. (Note 1)

The sites include Bingham Canyon, Utah (Kennicott Copper), Santa Rita, Silver City, New Mexico (Phelpps Dodge), and Alice in Arizona, also sites in the Mesabi iron and copper range in Northern Minnesota and the coal strip mines of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine in Minnesota is currently on the National Register of Historic Places but this is the only site of its type for which I could find any formal recognition. It is hoped that these images might help create awareness of these incredible features in the American landscape before they are reclaimed or destroyed, much like the 1871 Hayden exhibition photographs by William Jackson created an awareness which led to the creation of Yellowstone Park and the National Park Service.

My reasons for focusing on these places do not originate in a sense of environmentalist outrage, but rather from attempting to create a heightened awareness of the sheer physical scale of some human activity and the scale of the inadvertent markings being made on the environment by humankind. These works are something of a preamble to the other large scale works. In a sense they are an apologia for Land Art and a defense of large scale works in the environment by artists. These sites reinforce my premise that humans are producing very large scale inadvertent markings on the environment, that this process is irreversible, and artists are defaulting on their responsibility for our perceptual environment by not producing works on a similar scale or at least attempting to form or exert some control on the markings currently being created by these human activities.

Many artists (perhaps with the notable exception of Michael Heizer) have withdrawn from working on a very large scale in the environment. Land Art, since it first appeared, has drawn criticism from several directions including from the environmental movement. Many environmentalists have a sense that nature should be inviolate, at least from the advances of the artist, despite what is occurring in the hands of capitalistic and governmental entities. Smithson had some pithy remarks about this attitude. It requires artists to surrender involvement in a very significant arena, leaving control over the mega scale visual environment to governments and international capitalism with the attendant possibilities for propagandizing completely unmoderated.

Santa Rita Copper Mine, Silver City, New Mexico
view from the West (detail) Compare the structure on the
left to Robert Smithson's "Spiral Hill" in Emmen Holland.
Some time after I had the idea to do this I ran across David Hanson's book, "Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape". His book has a very different attitude towards these places. Unlike Edward Burtynsky's elegantly detached "Manufactured Landscapes", the Hanson book supports each photo with a detailed map and description of the explicit environmental havoc wrought by the site and it's status with the EPA. The effect is to minimize the impact of the images and places. The subtitle reminded me of Smithson's acidic remark that environmentalism was a "cheap religion". The Amazon section "Customers Interested in this title may also be interested in:" referred me to three other books on meditation. Presumably this was not just based on key word picking but also on customer buying habits. I noticed that Amazon did not refer me to the work by T.S. Elliot. One might equate the Sunday hiking or mountain biking expedition from the city as a form of church-going, renewing one's feeling of oneness with the "natural" world and steeling one for another week of immersion in the urban juggernaut. This is consistent with the ethnographic anthropologist's characterization of the urban dweller as having romanticized views of nature not based on experience, urban communities overwhelmingly understanding landscape as an expanse of pristine naturally occurring physical space viewed from afar. Sadly much of the thought in the environmental movement appears to be aligned with the early industrial revolution retreat to the pastoral. Insistence on almost total minimization of impact on the environment in selected areas, while the population bomb is slowly but inevitably exploding and massive underdeveloped countries are in the process of industrializing is a highly selective policy at best.

In a related circumstance while web browsing for "strip mine photography" I stumbled across the website for The Office of Surface Mining of the Department of the Interior. Here I learned that this department was created in 1977, just a few years after Smithson's death, as a result of a mining reclamation act. That act requires that strip mine remediation return the area to a "natural" condition, as if nothing had occurred there. This eliminates the possibility of the sort of earth work which Smithson envisioned for this sort of site. Referring to Smithson's proposals for earthworks involvied with mine reclamation, which he was working on at the time of his death, John Beardsley writes, "It is significant that in neither of these proposals did Smithson suggest disguising entirely the postindustrial character of his site and material. He felt it was inappropriate to attempt to recreate a perfect landscape and endeavored instead to evolve an artistically enriched and distinctly man-made landscape that acknowledged technological use. Smithson's proposals thus have a brutally realistic character and something of a commemorative function. His projects for (mine) tailings would have stood as memorials to industrial disruption of the landscape, and as provocations to contemplate the efficacy and necessity of our resource development policies."(1). By government decree this sort of memorial has been rejected.

Santa Rita Copper Mine, Silver City, New Mexico
view from the East
Since 1992 the OSMRE has actually been giving awards for the "best" reclamation project. To quote from the website: "...after abandoned mine problems are eliminated and reclamation is complete, it is nearly impossible for any observer to see that health and safety problems once existed on the site. Ironically, the better the reclamation, the less apparent it is. Thus, the best reclamation is virtually invisible." This form of reclamation was mandated by the authorizing legislation. Basically, congress decreed against artistic interpretation of these sites. So, we have a national policy of disguising our history of disruption of the natural landscape, often through the creation of public use parks on the site of these vast disruptions. The original ecosystems and biological diversity have been totally destroyed, but the remediation makes this appear not to be the case. Any possibility for the commemorative and memorial objectives of Smithson's concepts has been removed from possibility. The reclamation budget of the OSMRE in 2004 was $154 million dollars. Imagine the possibilities if only a portion of this were made available artist's projects at these sites.

This work advocates another approach. It is deemed far better to leave these sites as they are now, as evidence of the scale of our activity, rather than to cover them over and pretend it had never happened. Because, in fact, there are other disruptions of the environment occurring on an even greater scale but without such obvious visual artifacts. To conceal these artifacts makes it that much easier to be oblivious to the magnitude of humankind's impact on the environment. Without awareness we can never hope to moderate behavior, as if we could ever hope to in any case.

The enshrinement of these strip mines as Nation Monuments could mark the beginnings of a change in our attitude towards parks themselves. Olmstead's response to the choking urbanism of the early industrial revolution, creating a pastoral park as an escape from the urban environment, while impressive in it's rejection of the pictorial, is no longer valid. Artificial landscape created as parks should reject the historical pastoral and take the form of lands irrevocably marked by human activity. Our new parks should resemble strip mines or the great slag heaps of the Detroit smelting plants, we should learn to relax amidst the results of our occupation of the earth. We must learn to be comfortable with vistas of rural environmental exploitation, as that is irrevocably the course of our environment. If we wish to provide an experience of the rural within the urban, it should reflect the true nature of the rural, not an idealized 19th century Eden. The only places offering these 19th century pastoral vistas now are the parks themselves, whether urban or rural. Once intended to be mirrors of a outlying rural reality, they are now time machines, museums. To still consider them as representative of the rural reality is to live hopelessly in the past.

To qoute Smithson, "The ecologist tends to see the landscape in terms of the past, while most industrialists don't see anything at all. The artist must come out of the isolation of galleries and museums and provide a concrete consciousness for the present as it really exists..."(2)

Note 1: This has a relationship to Smithson's non-sites but the photos muddy the non-specific relationship but are essential for my purposes. I wonder what he would say, too much like a "unnatural history museam"?

1 "Earthworks and Beyond" John Beardsley, Abbeville Press, p. 25-26

2 "Robert Smithson: The Collected Wirtings", Jack Flam, ed., Proposal, 1972, p.379

Project Chronology

6/15-27/04, 3/5/05
Estancia, New Mexico