Sounds from Beneath (book)

A publication focusing on the project Sounds from Beneath (2011-2012) with a foreword by Sue Jones, and essays by Lucy Reynolds, Katerina Gregos and Prof. Steve Connor. 32 pages, DVD (sound & video), 11 colour illustrations.

future perfect: ISBN 978-0-9557361-1-7

Sub Rosa: SR314

Supported by The Henry Moore Foudation and the University of Westminster.


Echoes from the deep

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Abraham Lincoln

In a recent visit to the Belgian former coalmining region of Limburg, I happened to be fortunate enough to meet some ex-miners who for many years had toiled in one of Europe’s deep mines, Waterschei, before its closure in 1987. What struck me, apart from a certain nostalgia for the past and enormous pride about their vocation (despite the hardships and hazards they faced in the pit) was the very strong sense of a tight knit, dignified community that felt the need to look out for each other, and shared a particular sense of solidarity and professional pride. Coal mining was, and still is, a culture unto itself as well as an important social and political issue, and one that involves countless stories of boldness, resilience, tribulation and sheer human perseverance.

Despite advances in technology, coal mining is still one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, especially in those parts where human life is expendable. As such it has been said to draw and develop a certain kind of man. With the history of coalmining, have also come a plethora of powerful narratives – visual as well as literary – all contingent on that very fine line between life and death, and the anxiety of waiting. The awareness of mortality that is inextricably tied to this form of labour “is so deeply a part of the culture that it’s almost sort of part of this subconscious texture of life.”

There has been extraordinary drama and stories of heroic tenacity in the history of coal mining, both relating to the miners themselves as well as their families, a more recent example being that of the remarkable rescue of the thirty three miners in Chile after sixty nine days underground, which captured the global imagination. In his book The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell sums up the plight and role of the miner in a manner as profound as it is starkly real, “in the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.” Orwell also wrote of the ‘splendour’ of the coal miner and the fact that, “more than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally.”

I am old enough to remember the miners’ strike in the UK in 1984-85; it was so dominant in the media and collective consciousness of the day that I recall it quite clearly. The strike was a defining moment in the history of the labour movement, industrial relations, and trade unionism. It signalled a major political and ideological victory for Thatcherism and private corporate interests, and by extent conservative politics and their relationship to the free market, and set a precedent for the drive towards privatisation and the demise of trade unionism and syndicalism, not to mention worker’s rights.

In many areas of the world, particularly Western Europe, the job of the coal miner has become almost obsolete. While coal production has declined in Europe, in Asia it is growing, and the demand for coal is surging to respond to growing energy needs. As such, coal mining today is inextricably tied to the level of human rights that exist in the countries where it is practiced. In the USA, for example coal mining has been rendered fairly safe while in China it is still very risky business with up to twenty thousand miners dying each year in accidents.

It is against this highly politicised and emotional debate that Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow’s work “Sounds from Beneath” can be seen. Karikis worked with an ex-coalminers’ choir, from Snowdown Colliery in Kent (closed in 1987) whom he asked to vocally mimic the sounds of underground activity in the coalmines, which are performed as a choral piece in the video. In the work a group of ex-miners unite in voice to intimate the sounds of the underground – digging, drilling, grinding; explosions, alarms, machinery moving – against the backdrop of the landscape of the desolate closed mine in which they once worked. The daily workings of the mine are thus brought back to life in a song that rests on a fragmented narrative of key words (“charge”, “stem”, “shovel”, “hammer”, “drill”) and simulation of the sounds of the workings of the pit. Set against a charred bleak landscape of slagheaps, the prominent ageing figures of the miners and their resonating voices rise up above the desolation, activating memory and intimating practices since rendered lost and obsolete. At once political and poetic, the film cuts through any expected conventional documentary realism and resonates with pathos, dignity and emotional force. It functions as a salvaging of memory, an ode, a tribute, and a requiem all at once, and the song echoes as an act of redemption. The work raises the spectre of dark subterranean excavations and captures the essence of the act of coal mining, while recalling the picket lines and intimating a strong sense of male identity, and the solidarity of sharing a common purpose in work and in song. The muteness of the landscape – barren pockets of land that resemble lunar landscapes, surrounded by lush vegetation – contrasts with the towering, poignant song, thus momentarily bringing the coal mine back to life.

Katerina Gregos