|dc.description.abstract||“Material Matters at the Coalface” questions our human relationships with geological
matter through a socially-engaged art enquiry into the politics of coal, space and place.
Activating coal as “vibrant matter”, this project works with brown coal as a medium to
investigate the role that coal plays in Latrobe Valley mining communities.
This project combined socially-engaged, participatory practice and practice-led artistic
research with an ethnographic sensibility to investigate the community’s response to
living in, and among coal. It aimed to create dialogue and better understand the complex
web of changes affecting communities, who are in transition and impacted by the closure
of coal-fired power stations and sweeping changes in power generation.
The research findings are presented through a written dissertation and durable records of
the “COAL” graduate exhibition, which was staged at the VCA Art Space in Melbourne in
February 2017. Unearthing coal’s performative material qualities, this exhibition put the
gritty materiality of locally collected brown coal to work as an aesthetic medium in a series
of visual artworks, performances and installations encompassing three interconnected
galleries and 210sm2 of space.
Questioning the physical, psychic and social relationships humans have with non-human
matter coal, the “COAL” exhibition also included documentation of performative acts of
labour, such as sweeping and cleaning, which were originally performed in public spaces,
neglected historical buildings and empty deserted shops in Morwell. The resultant body
of artefacts, performances and installations reflect a sustained material engagement with
brown coal and socially-engaged arts practice with Latrobe Valley communities over the
last three years.
The creative works are analysed and contextualised by drawing on a lineage of artists,
writers and philosophers from the intersecting fields of social practice, art and anthropology,
who have explored the political ecology of geological matter and the environment.
This investigation of coal’s role in the local community of Morwell demonstrates the
increasing ecological impact of human beings’ commodified relationships to nature,
place and matter. Departing from these site-responsive concerns and the context of
peri-urban Victoria, coal’s political ecology acts as a microcosm, an allegory and visual
metaphor for much larger political and cultural situations. Moving beyond the impact of
globalisation on local conditions, the project scrutinises deeply entrenched thinking,
which “places man-as-subject at the centre of all relations.”1
The research adopts a New Materialist lens to frame the project and foreground the
agency of matter to questions such pre-conceived human-centric biases. As a
heterogeneous, emerging cultural theory, New Materialism pays renewed attention to the
central importance of matter in cultural discourse as a pathway to re-orientate human
beings’ relationality with the material world. Responding to, and building on existing
scholarship, debates and critiques of New Materialism, this research challenges binary
perceptions, that coal is an inert resource to demonstrate coal’s vibrancy as an active
agent in shaping experience and discourse.
Contesting anthropocentric definitions of temporality, performance and authorship this
research endeavours to act as a cultural agent of change and assist the local community
to make the long-term transition to a sustainable local economy and cleaner energy future
that better supports jobs, communities and their long-term health.
The complex web of changes facing coal and communities in the Latrobe Valley are
brought to the attention of a wider audience through art. The project was driven by a
sense of optimism, that contemporary art and culture can create genuine dialogue,
engagement and common ground between opposing and polarized views regarding
climate change, so that communities can work together and re-orientate currently
destructive social relationality with coal, to globally make the vital transition to renewable
1 Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, Carnal Knowledge: Towards A'new Materialism'through the Arts (Ib