Learning from Landscapes: Aesthetics, Identity and the Post-Extractivist Transition

The coal region of Lusatia in the former East Germany is undergoing fundamental socio-economic changes. The challenge is to work collaboratively and collectively on a just transition – with humans and with non-human and more-than-human community members, Kat Austen argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism,” drawing on her artistic research for “This Land is Not Mine.”


Birch trees sway in the gentle breeze blowing off the sun-baked lake at Großräschen in Southern Brandenburg, the fluttering of their translucent leaves casting dancing shadows on the sandy coppice floor.

Water is important here. There have been droughts that get worse year on year as the rain comes less often. When it does come it rains hard. I had been cycling in the summer heat around the lake, exploring the legacy of open cast mining, which saw this giant pit flooded ten years ago to create a recreational area. The water at Großräschen is hard to reach: the banks are unstable and until recently the water was too acidic for bathing. I had spent the day lying on forest floors to record video and audio of birch trees. The only way I could take a sample of water from the lake was by dangling a jam jar over the side of the empty marina using a length of the string I always carry on field recording adventures. On pulling it back up, I was sure I could feel the skin on my hands tingling where the water touched.

This Land is Not Mine” began as an artistic research project supported by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam. Realized after two year’s work as an installation and music album, the research focused on the region of Lusatia, where Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic meet. Lusatia is the home of the Sorbian minority group, and since early last century has been the site of wide-ranging open cast lignite mining that gave economic security with one hand while taking away homes and historic sites by scraping away the region’s surface driving a digger the size of a house with the other. Needless to say, the relationship of the region with fossil fuel extraction is extremely complex and many entities hold a stake in the consequences and future of the activity, including humans, waterways, plants, and animals.

Shifting balance of agency

Time and the planet are entering the post-anthropocene era. Humans have related to the land through extractive processes for millennia, increasing the depth of their finger prints on the earth, water, and atmosphere, to the point of exceeding planetary boundaries. With tipping points crossed and extreme weather events becoming more frequent, it’s clear that the balance of agency between these environments and humans is shifting, and that this extractive relation to other(s) bodies is one of the modes of being in the world that will – that has to – change.

Now is the rubicon, a threshold that will be crossed into a post-extractive and post-anthropocentric time. I had been intrigued by how to prepare for this and how to find hope on the other side of ecological grief. So in 2020 I started artistic research in this enthralling landscape of Lusatia, just at the point when Germany’s government announced that all mining activity would be stopped by 2038.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

“This Land is Not Mine” focuses on identity in this region of co-exisiting cultures as it is undergoing fundamental socio-economic changes as brown coal mining industry in the region is phased out, entwining of identity, extraction, and sustainability from a perspective of a region. Alongside being the home to Sorbs, Lusatia is well known for its brown-coal mining industry. The dominance of the large opencast mines on the landscape is paralleled in their dominance of the external narrative of Lusatia’s identity. However, with the industry set to end in just under 20 years, and while old mines are already filled with water across the region, questions remain about what will fill the holes left by the mines in the future economy and industry, and in people’s hearts.

More-than-human life

The project encompasses more than the human elements of the region’s identity, however. As with much of my work, “This Land is Not Mine” addresses the more-than-human of entities within an ecosystem, such as the water, the air, insects… My first approach to the project was through the landscape and entities within it. I visited the landscape, worked my way into it, watched and listen to it. I touched the water, used hydrophones to listen under the surface. I took samples and used specially adapted scientific instruments to listen to the sound of how acidic and how clean the water is. I read folk tales, news reports, scientific papers. Simultaneously, I began to reach out to those humans living within the landscape in an effort to understand and work together to create meaning of living in this transitioning landscape.

I set up a crowdsourcing platform to create a database of sounds that Lusatian residents identify with the region. As a response to coronavirus restrictions on participatory events, the microsite also shares listening and sound recording practices to disseminate field recording as a way of interrogating emotional engagement with characteristics of the landscape that form part of the identity of the region and the listener, and as a method of deepening one’s relationship across the border of one’s being to the surroundings.

During one of the rare lifting of restrictions during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, I ran a workshop for This Land is Not Mine at the Brandenburg Museum of Modern Art in Cottbus in Lusatia, where we explored the soundscape of urban waterways in the context of the project. I also helped plant a forest farm in rural Brandenburg, and joined discussion groups and workshops about identity in the region. And I worked with a local artist, Inna Perkas, to make a collaborative responsive happening within Cottbus.

Through prolonged visits to diverse parts of the region, I collected a wealth of video and audio recordings that began to take shape as vignettes on the multiple components of the identity of this transitioning region.

Realization of an aesthetic

The realization of “This Land is Not Mine” was iterative and in conversation with the research. The final forms are an installation combining 20 channel video with a 2 channel soundscape, a 7-track album of experimental music, and the crowd-sourcing website along with the database of sounds it offers.

Drawing from chemical and climate science approaches to dynamic systems, I developed a framework for working with video material based on different classes of chemical reaction to derive three lenses by which to understand what I had encountered: Steady, Dissipative and Multi. The installation of 20 separate channels is presented as a 7-6-7 triptych across these perspectives spanning a total of 16 meters. Each of the synchronized video channels is presented on 7-inch screens housed in bespoke wooden frames and accompanied by a soundscape composed from field recordings from Lusatia.

The challenge was to engage fairly with the landscape – the aesthetic of the mining, both in terms of sounds and visuals is so epic that there is a risk to be engulfed by it. But on a smaller scale there is a great deal of beauty and variety, accessible through paying close attention, embodiment and technological mediation, that tells a much richer story.

Inspired by the multiple coexisting stories and identities encountered in Lusatia, the structure of the album “This Land is Not Mine” draws on structures prevalent in folk and protest music. Each song takes the perspective of a different protagonist, be that the River Spree, the city of Cottbus or the fabled healing fountain of Duborka. The album, released digitally, is presented as a complete, concept album performance during which samples of water from Lusatia are played alongside samples of water local to the performance location.

Both outputs elaborate on the complexity of identity. They highlight the importance and diversity of subjectivity (human, non-human, and more-than-human) in relating to place, and the importance of scale in exploring post-extractive and post-anthropocentric aesthetics. To me, they have helped reinforce learning from my previous projects, such as “The Matter of the Soul,” that what is as important as identity is the ability to engage with others beyond identity – to acknowledge, embrace and engage openly with differences between selves.

The quality of transitions within post-extractive landscapes is a vital aspect of realizing sustainable futures. It is not sufficient to have technological solutions and materials to meet societies’ needs, it is necessary also to have the motivation and understanding to work collaboratively and collectively – with other humans and with non-human and more-than-human community members. As humans stand on the brink of the post-anthropocene, we must adopt new – or old – ways to be, ways to relate to the world and other(s) within it. Whether contemporary experimentation with these modes happens in post-extractive, urban, rural or post-industrial landscapes, collectively humanity faces an extraordinary opportunity to reshape itself within the world it has created.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de

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