Fairy knockers, inverted pyramids and kilometre wide holes / by Jenny Hall

Hollow photo by David M Reynolds

Hollow photo by David M Reynolds

Audio recording of Hollow symposium captured live on 13 April 2016 at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, with introduction by Paul Newland, Director of Centre for Cultures of Place, Presentation about the mines of Ceredigion by Ioan Rhys Lord, Hugh Ratzer and Robert Ireland (4:30 - 37:20) and Q&A hosted by Jenny Hall with architect Niall Maxwell, performance and architecture lecturer Dr Andrew Filmer and mining archaeologist Jamie Thorburn (37:21-1:23:38).

I wanted Hollow to bring people together to explore a spectrum of human experience related to the artwork. In a sense to form a constellation of the complex networks linked to mining, extraction, destruction and construction. I considered inviting economists, geologists, environmental activists, representatives from industry, perhaps a Buddhist monk concerned with notions of equilibrium and reincarnation (the ultimate recycling) as well as human geographers, architects and philosophers. In the end, the mix of specialists we had was just right for exploring ideas at a local and global level. The symposium was held in the gallery to enable the audience to move in and around the artwork and to handle the exhibition objects.

My key partners in developing ideas were Dr Andrew Filmer and Dr Paul Newland both of the Theatre, Film & Television Studies Department at the Aberystwyth University. Andrew is a colleague I've been working with for several years now, exploring the intersection between performance and architecture. Paul is the Director of the Centre for Cultures of Place and kindly offered to host the symposium under the umbrella of his research centre.  Together we framed ideas and explored possible structures for a symposium and set a date.

I had had the good fortune to listen to the Radio 3 podcast 'Holes in the Ground' first aired 20 January 2016 and had listened with interest to the cultural theorists talking about links between the subterranean and culture. In particular the MIT researcher Rosalind Williams offered fascinating insights into how the underground has shaped human psychology as well as human discoveries. I decided to introduce myself and Hollow.

Her gracious email followed ....

'It is unlikely but not out of the question that I could be in the UK in April.  I have a talk scheduled in Pennsylvania for April 13-15 but otherwise the month is pretty open for me...'

Note the date...April 13. Sadly neither Rosalind nor Gareth Hoskins, Senior lecturer in Human Geography at the Aberystwyth University could make it...and nor could any of his Earth Sciences department who were collectively on research trips over Easter.

So, given that I couldn't leave Rosalind and Gareth to shape the no doubt fascinating symposium we would have enjoyed with their illustrious presence, I endeavoured to glean what I could in conversation with them both. Rosalind referred me to her book 'Notes on the Underground' as well as to Lewis Mumford's 'Technics & Civilization, 'The Time Machine', 'The Machine Stops' and 'The Journey to the Centre of the Earth.' She suggested inviting science students to consider their own holistic and emotional responses as evidence when enquiring into 'what used to be in a place that now seems empty'. Gareth pointed me towards the artists and academics exploring mining imagery, geology and post humanism as drivers for their work, namely Elizabeth Ellsworth's publication 'Making the geologic now' and the work of Caitlin de Silva, Elizabeth Grosz and Elizabeth Povinelli.

There is a huge body of work exploring links between the subterranean and culture and my observation of mining as a mirror of culture is just one of many analogies that are being drawn.

As I continued to explore the nature of the symposium, I was referred again and again to a 17 year old boy called Ioan Rhys lord who was born and has lived in an old miners' cottage in Cwm Rheidol all his life. He is a forthcoming Director of the Welsh Mines Preservation Trust, and is currently writing a book on the metal mining industry of Cwm Rheidol and Ponterwyd. I had been told he was an incredible speaker and so invited him to the symposium.

Following an introduction from our host Paul, Ioan was the first speaker of the night. He was accompanied by Hugh Ratzer, director of The Cambrian Mines Trust and Robert Ireland, Chairman of the Welsh Mines Preservation Trust. The three gentlemen offered an insight into the mines of Ceredigion, explaining why they are there and what they were like and endeavoured to illustrate the lives of the miners who worked there through dramatising historic accounts of conditions recorded at the time and screening huge pictures of the miners faces. They shared with us the rise and fall of mining in the region and brought to life the history that they have been piecing together (4:30 - 37:20). Their presentation was fascinating and elucidated among other ideas, the folk tale of the fairy knockers (35:17 - 37:20). Great thanks to Ioan, Hugh and Robert.

I am also grateful to the architect Niall Maxwell of Rural Office for Architecture, Dr Andrew Filmer and Jamie Thorburn of the Early Mines Research Group for sitting on the Q&A panel with me afterwards. We explored ideas connecting the practical industry of mining with the creative production of buildings and civic engineering and the implications on how people exist within these constructions. We explored how mining and the idea of 'mining for truth' informed the very desire for the industrial processes that have come to shape society (37:21 - 1:23:38). For this discussion we heavily referenced Rosalind Williams' Notes from the Underground which I cannot recommend highly enough.

We were blessed with Jamie's transporting visualisations of his experiences as an archaeologist for the Rio Tinto mines in the 1980s. He helped us understand the scale of the mines and the psychology of the people that operated them as well as bringing us up to speed on how contemporary technologies are refining and seeking greater accuracy to be less wasteful. He was forced to recognise that Hollow, a construction in cardboard that he originally thought had little relevance with the capital driven force of the extractive industries, was a more visually accurate representation of how material is contemporarily being commodified than he was aware. I think this was a backhanded compliment!

A final word to Kara Moses, the inspiring activist who was a part of the Ffos y ffran coal protest in May 2016 and pertinently highlighted the dark side of mining, the pollution, health impacts, environmental destruction and displacement of communities that continues as an onslaught of unchecked capitalism. This dark side is what I sought to shine a light on in a way that doesn't necessarily seek immediate action but rather to illuminate our continued heavy reliance on the subterannean, to the order of 10 tonnes per person per year in the UK. To recognise, weigh and consider at what cost and for what gain this relationship. Where have we come from, where are we going? Do we like who we are becoming? How can we change our relationship to the earth?

The Q&A was the perfect place to start an exploration of the constellation of complex networks connected with mining. I hope this will form the beginning of new partnerships, research and awareness.

With special thanks to Paul Newland, all the guest speakers, Aberystwyth Arts Centre staff and the insightful Rosalind Williams.