Mining Film: From Dispossession to Expropriation

Juan Manuel Sepúlveda’s film, Every Image calls for its Redemption – Matter is not created nor destroyed (it only changes form) (2012) sets off from the Zacatecas community a couple of months after a blockade at Goldcorp’s Peñasquito mine in Mexico. Installed outside the entrance of the SFU Audain Gallery for the MFA exhibition Apparitions (2012), the installation format is peculiar and unconventional. The installation, split in two, begins with an interview with a rural ejidatario (communal land owner) who gestures without sound as he drives his truck through the Mazapil city centre. His body mimes a testimonial address, but the sounds that emit from the installation’s headphones are instead the ambient everyday noises found on any Vancouver side-street: a bus moves along an electric-wire; indiscernible shouts and murmurs ring along the sidewalk; police sirens annoy without end; footsteps advance down a hall with added weight and resonance. Yet from the truck ride, the sequence quickly moves from intimate address to the unending descent down a craggy dirt road towards the Peñasquito mine.

Every image calls for its redemption – Matter is not created nor destroyed (it only changes form) (2012)

From a distance, the peaks of the twisting Sierra Mountains are only visible in that hazy kind of way. In the middle-ground a handful of severed plateaus expose the brutality of industry. Planted conspicuously in front of the rambling landscape, two open-pit mines clash with the subtle undulations of the continuous band of peaks that ripple across the sun-drenched horizon. Just visible from the foreground, three large dump trucks purposefully move back and forth along curving paths. Placed alongside these operations, an uncountable series of other trucks await like zealous panzers off to the side, anticipating deployment. Still without a voice, the film lingers in an indeterminate space while the camera roams at a guarded distance. The juxtaposition between the incongruent image and indistinct audio grate against the expectation of a voice that is deliberately withheld. From the headphones, a shout emerges from an exchange in a Vancouver alleyway, “Hey! You can’t be here … bye.”

Every image calls for its redemption – Matter is not created nor destroyed (it only changes form) (2012)

The distant view of the Peñasquito mine is panoramic, mechanical, depeopled. The dismal scene of industry grinds against the intimate testimonies previously seen but not-heard, only witnessed. When the panorama reaches its halting point, the viewer is jolted back to the soundless testimonies of the ejidatarios, then back to single shots of the margins of an arid city-centre. This harsh countryside is punctuated with abandoned lookout towers and shacks while the humble residences of the ejidatarios barely exist.

Viewed from the other side of the projection, we recognize that the film is deliberately split in two. On this other side, words are channeled from the previous testimonies as they surface below the bottom of light-soaked images gleaned from SFU’s surveillance cameras. The pictures accompanying the text persist without a single protagonist. Each statement is figured like phantoms set to haunt the projection like an amassing flock of evanescent ghosts. From within the projection, the two sites are superimposed to complement one another, transmitted in closed caption to give voice to the peopleless narrative on the other side. The testimonies previously seen, but not heard, find themselves dislocated and displaced, in Spanish translations that echo through the immobile perched shots of the halls, stairways and doorways of the SFU Goldcorp Centre for Contemporary Art.

Every image calls for its redemption (2012) (detail)

From the lips of the rural ejidatarios, we are told of the injustices inflicted by mining corporation Goldcorp: the dispossession of communally owned property; the use of banned cyanide in the separation of gold from its surrounding minerals; the contamination of the drinking water; the lawless circumvention of legal codes for mining in the area. Alongside this list there is an addendum, namely, how the people of Zacatecas are re-mobilizing to fight back against these injustices. “Goldcorp,” in their words, has tried to “cheat these little indians,” but it is these same ejidatarios who have also “raised their heads,” organizing in defense of their land and their way of life. Their militant address is not a speculative gesturing towards some politics looking off to an imagined horizon. Rather, it is a testimony of the immanence of political struggle located in the here and now. It is the very face of a mobilization that opposes the traditional place of colonial oppression and the contemporary corporate subjugation that seeks to break the shackles tying collective bodies to new and old orders.

Previous to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the ejidatarios communal land could not be expropriated, bought or sold. This system of collective ownership had dated back all the way to the Aztec rule of Mexico, re-written into the Constitution of 1917 after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. However, the historic “opening up” of ejídos under NAFTA provided the legal grounds for foreign mining companies like Goldcorp to actively dispossess communal property. Pressured by the World Bank and the United States, Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution was re-written to eliminate ejído protections, thereby enabling privatization. Through local subsidiaries, global corporations such as Goldcorp can now own 100 percent of mining concessions.

Concerning Peñasquito Mine, Goldcorp was still required to draft contracts with the ejídos Assemblies of Cedros, El Vergel, Cerro Gordo and Mazapil to cede their lands to the company by means of temporary land-occupancy agreements. In March 2006, representatives of the Cedros ejído, pressured by local government, unilaterally signed an agreement with Goldcorp’s legal representative which handed over to the company the rights for 4,525 hectares for a period of thirty years, extendable to thirty more, permitting the company to mine and refine ores, pump groundwater, deposit mining waste, and construct infrastructure. In exchange, the ejidatarios received US$2.1 million, equivalent to US$472 per hectare, as sole payment for the duration of the agreement. At present, the current value of gold, silver, zinc and lead projected at the Peñasquito mine is estimated at US$57 billion. To make matters worse, the agreement also stated that after the land is rented to Goldcorp, the corporation is immune to any changes and alterations to the land – such as drought or soil contamination through the use of cyanide – and the ejídos must waive all rights to any future reclamations.

Blockade outside the Peñasquito Mine (2009)

Two years after the signed agreement, with water resources significantly depleted and soil contaminated through Goldcorp’s cyanide extraction process, a blockade and legal case was launched by the communities of Zacatecas. In late 2009, a band of more than 1,000 indigenous ejidatarios from the Province of Zacateca, set up a blockade outside the road leading to Goldcorp’s Peñasquito mine. At the blockade, Lucio González a communal ejidatarios stated:

[Goldcorp] leased the land for thirty years, extendable to thirty more. What they gave us was a joke. They paid fifty cents per square meter. [….] We are not asking for gifts, we are not asking for charity. All we want from them is respect. We demand what is owed to the ejido [communal land]. [….] The land is ours and among the richest in gold worldwide. I believe we deserve a part in all this. [….] They promised us the moon and the stars and did nothing but destroy our land; we won’t be able to use it anymore, we’ll get nothing from it afterwards.

The expropriation of the ejídos land is a clear-cut case of accumulation by dispossession, a predatory form of accumulation through which traditional community-owned resources are made available to transnational corporations at minimal costs. The measly sum distributed to the community of Zacatecas, is representative of the uneven geography of global mining — a geography that today finds itself transported back onto Simon Fraser University Downtown Goldcorp sponsored campus.

Every Image calls for its Redemption – Matter is not created nor destroyed (it only changes form) (2012)

The encounter with Sepúlveda’s film, intensified by the interval between the two sites of projection, is uncooperative and schizophrenic. The work is meant to estrange and dislodge the viewer from the distracted rituals of any gallery experience. If the ejidatarios have “raised their heads” and have grounded their resistance to their communal land, the viewer in SFU atrium is uprooted in an unconventional form of solidarity. The viewer, situated in SFU’s atrium, is struck by the semblance of the SFU campus, suddenly made strange by the presence of a militant address. The site is deracinated from its habitual use. In its structural displacement of image from its audio, the work calls forth an encounter that is willing, in an peculiar fashion, to recombine two separate histories of dispossession: the founding of SFU’s Woodwards Goldcorp (2009) and the groundbreaking of Goldcorp’s Peñasquito mine (2006).

Every image calls for its redemption – Matter is not created nor destroyed (it only changes form) (2012)

The two forms of dispossession are naturally concomitant with one another. “Matter,” as Sepúlveda’s title suggests, “is neither created nor destroyed (it only changes form).” The bracketed statement, “(it only changes form),” hints at a known but disavowed secret of global capital accumulation. To quote Sepúlveda further, SFU’s partnered sponsorship with the controversial mining corporation is dictated by a particular regime of visibility that structures the logic of each site. In the exhibition booklet, Sepúlveda addresses the sponsorship directly: “How does one embrace the controversy when the relationship is so immediate?” Sepulveda’s answer? It lies within the redistribution of a militant aesthetic capable of exposing the inexistent disavowal that structures the existent within the logic of the current world:

Any addition is at the same time a subtraction. The opening of this space implies the closure of another. The appearance carries a disappearance in a direct link that unifies the two spaces within a complex and fragile equilibrium. The visible displaces its invisible that nonetheless is there waiting for its reappearance.

Sepúlveda’s realism lies in the potentiality of exposing the presented site in its own generality — the universal condition of the object, thing, space — for what it is, as it is. But in capitalist society, one cannot speak of generality without moving through the particulars of private property. For Sepúlveda, there are no property relations in general, but only historically determined social forms of property.

The early Marx spoke of private property as the “material perceptible expression of estranged human life.” For Marx, private property was not just an ‘expression’ of the economy, but also an alienating relation with its own form of ‘expression’ and ‘sense.’ In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx writes: “private property has made us so stupid and one sided that an object is only ours when we have it – when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc. – in short, when it is used by us.” The foundation of private property, through its objectification as estrangement and alienation, is the exploitation of labour ruthlessly turned into capital at every turn.

That is why in his Manuscripts, Marx would pen something apropos of Goldcorp: “the dealers of minerals,” he claims, “only see the commercial value but not the beauty and specific character of the mineral: they have no mineral sense.” Even though material industry may be a force for the power of objectification in a form that draws on a human essence — for example as sensuous, alien, useful objects — humanity does not necessarily share the end-point of this fate. These relations are reversible, an emancipated humanity can shake off its capitalist fate and embrace the powers of the commons: universal humanity can be treated as an agent of appropriation. Assuming that ‘sense’ is both regulated by an estranged human life as well a necessary component for an estranging human economy, a liberated “mineral sense” should be understood as the antagonistic relationship with the object of private property and humanity’s objectification as commodified labour.

Re-visiting Sepúlveda’s installation, the emptiness of the projected image of SFU Goldcorp campus is disrupted and made strange by the presence of the encounter with the militant testimony. It simultaneously recognizes the deadening, estranged nature of the two sites – SFU and Peñasquito mine – but also calls forth a dissolving of those sites in the presence of the ejidatarios. The alienation effect of the work of art connects the two sites with an unbinding faculty that severs the illusory identity of corporate globalization. The split that takes place within the two sites – figured as a form of absolute alienation from SFU and Goldcorp – opens a recognition of militant action as a proper form of knowledge. A form of knowledge based on the negation and supersession of private property. In this instance, what takes place is the desegregation of the segregation of space, insofar as the audience becomes estranged from its usual institutional habits and identifications.

This condition of the commodity, which we might call its “mineral condition,” is brought forth in Marx’s famous thesis of human labour in the abstract. Commodities, as Marx claims in Capital, are products of labour, yet in their appearance “there is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous labour…As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values — commodity values.” Although the commodity has a concrete manifestation as the crystallization of abstract human labour, the fetish character that conceals the commodity erases the marks of exploited labour. A definitive social relationship between workers is obscured, and instead assumes the fantastic form of a relationship between things.

Marx uses the word phantasmagoria to describe this strange commodity effect. Unlike our moment, when the term ‘phantasmagoria’ is deployed as an empty placeholder for month-long gallery exhibitions, in Marx’s time, phantasmagoria exhibitions were optical illusions produced by the use of a magic lantern in which animistic phenomena were projected with the use of artificial light. During such displays, specters, skeletons, and uncanny figures would suddenly advance upon the screen, overwhelming the audience. Gradually the figures would become larger as they approached the audience, but would vanish by appearing to sink into the ground. For Marx, the phantasmagorical character of the commodity is a useful metaphor, since the fetish-form operates at the level of distortion, causing the figurative table to stand on its head. The illusion of the commodity is not merely a hallucination, but rather the sedimentation of a real social relation. A critique of commodity relations, then, requires a militant subject capable of cutting through the veil of appearances so that the object, obscured by its a phantasmagorical presence, is unable to dance in the falsified realm of representation.

The appropriation of the SFU’s campus from the realm of private property re-inspires the appropriated object. This is where the knowledge of the militant-artist, sutured to contemporary social movements, clashes with the knowledge produced by Goldcorp and its dominant form of cultural imperialism. A mineral sense activated by a militant aesthetic intervention operates as a biting counterweight to the fetishized, selectively blind view of a corporatized visual regime.

Every Image calls for its Redemption – Matter is not created nor destroyed (it only changes form) (2012)

It is through a self-annulled experience with private property, and therefore a self-annihilation of the audience’s ‘I,’ that the installation is able to work on the spectator. In this sense, the viewer is not simply transformed into a deadened object by the cultural logic of the site, but is instead confronted with a self-annulling experience that fails to restore the fractures of identity within a civil society founded on private property. Instead, the installation tears these fractures even larger. The experience resembles the shudder: the self, for a few minutes, recognizes itself as semblance and is shattered. This type of self-annihilating aesthetic experience encourages the subjective dislocation necessary to break out of the conventional time and space of SFU’s cultural unit.

The intersection between the second largest gold mine in Mexico and the second largest performing arts institution in Vancouver sponsored by the same corporation also indicates a shift in funding for university institutions. It exposes a regime of visibility that coordinates the very existence of both sites as part of a planned dispossession of a people’s wealth and livelihood in exchange for economic and social inequality.

In Vancouver, the SFU Woodwards development is a direct example of accumulation by dispossession. This is true on more than one front. Woodward’s, financed by mega-developer Ian Gillespie of Westbank Projects, designed by the celebrated architect Gregory Henriquez, marketed by Bob Rennie and championed by former city councilor Jim Green, was initially praised as a “sonnet to inclusivity,” to quote Green. On the heels of the resistance at Woodsquat and in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics, promises were made that in retrospect were artificial. The project has seen 537 market units cordoned off from the remaining 125 units of non-market housing managed by the Portland Hotel Society and 75 subsidized family units administered by the Affordable Housing Society. These units are placed in the midst of London Drugs, Nesters, and TD Canada Trust who all received major tax breaks for their developments. At least two independent reviews of the housing stock in the last four years have shown that the arrival of the Woodward’s project has not left a legacy of public housing, social inclusivity or progressive values. Instead it has entrenched the forces of gentrification in the area by causing more than a hundred units of affordable housing to disappear, with dozens more undergoing upscaling and major rent increases, causing further real estate speculation, yuppy stores and poor-bashing, as well as increases in the police presence in the surrounding neighborhood.

No Goldcorp at SFU protest (2011)

These are the real effects of SFU’s presence, counterposed to what SFU President Andrew Petter speaks of as the university’s aspiration to “contribute to the social, economic revitalization of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.” Petter’s codeword, “revitalization,” is another way of saying “displacement.” It is a form of revitalization with displacement — the displacement of the existing low-income community who live in the DTES neighborhood. A similar reality lies behind Goldcorp president Chuck Jeannes’ claim that Goldcorp “is committed to making a positive difference here in Vancouver as well as those where we operate our mines.” Like Petter, he justifies Goldcorp’s presence through redemptive language: “Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has become one of Canada’s most depressed neighbourhoods, and we are optimistic that by working with Simon Fraser University, we will be able to reach out to its businesses and residents to help create a more sustainable future.” It is with this in view that we should read the Goldcorp tagline found on promotional material in SFU hallways: “EXPLORERS, ROMANTICS, VISIONARIES: DIG DEEP.”

With Sepúlveda’s installation and Petter’s privatized institution, two modes of redemption are counterposed: the redemption of the corporate elite and their gentrifying cultural facilities, and the redemption called forth by the self-moving force of a subject who develops the means to overturn the existing state of things.

Walter Benjamin once said that “there is no redemption for artworks,” to which one should add that there is also no redemption for Mining Companies or Universities who dispossess people of their communal land and resources without recourse to justice and equality. To speak bluntly, there is only class struggle – a struggle that is international at its very foundation.

If the artwork is incapable of redemption, it is so in a twofold sense. An artwork is capable of pointing to a redeemed moment in history whose past is cited in the present, appearing as a constellated moment pregnant with antagonism. As such, it may hold the promise of a redeemed world in which, to paraphrase Theodor Adorno in Aesthetic Theory, “everything would be as it is but wholly different.” This is where the militant’s search for justice in the midst of environmental degradation and economic stratification estranges the rhetoric of “freedom” and “democracy,” exposed as the habitual language accompanying the brutal dispossessions associated with the free market and the corporate governance of the commons.

The overt, transparent mode of address by the ejidatarios, captured in Sepúlveda’s installation, collectively bears witness to the everyday occurrence of political organizing. We are told that “the union or organization,” is the mode for mobilization. Armed with these statements, the accepted, juridical objectivity of the surveillance camera is pitted against the militant, subjectivity of their testimony. In a sense, the empty virtual space of surveillance — its emptiness in time, space and history — is made visible in Sepulveda’s projection.

The criticality of Sepúlveda’s installation does not derive from the citation of his testimonial material. Rather, the work delivers a critical power by presenting testimonies that are subordinated to a disjunctive artistic form — an estranged form that deploys dislocation and displacement as citation. The structuring principle of this dis-identification, which I would argue is the work’s realism, is an effect that is produced rather than a factum merely deployed.

“The truth of art” as Herbert Marcuse once claimed, “consists in its capacity to shatter the monopoly of constituted reality…and to define what is real.” What is real, in effect, is an operation that in turn counters an accepted reality. “In this break, which is the conquest of the aesthetic form,” as Marcuse continues, “the fictitious world of art appears as the true reality.”

The trouble with documentary art is that it often elevates the iconography of an event above and beyond an unfolding political sequence. The question that Sepúlveda faces is how to subordinate the documentary address to a contingent mode of interpretation unconditioned by the coordinates of the medium. By ousting documentary’s authoritative interpretive structure, the contingency of worlds is exposed, revealing the sedimentation of politics within a militant aesthetic. In documentary-art, this is where the politics of art re-enters the scene.


More information on the films of Juan Manuel Sepúlveda can be read here: