In mining, overburden is the material that lies above an area targeted for exploitation.

It is comprised of the rock, soil, and ecosystem that lie between a seam or body of minerals and those who would extract those minerals for profit. It’s a term that could also be applied to human communities who live above minerals of economic value. These people and their lives stand in the way of extraction; or in some cases, enable this extraction at risk to their own health and safety.

In Minnesota’s mining communities this process has left visible traces on the landscape. One can stand atop large hills made from overburden, or can look out across mine pit lakes that are the result of past mining activities. In many of these places, memorial overlooks have been built, furthering the aesthetic logic of extraction-based economies. People are compelled to view their landscape from above, considering how it has been modified by the industrial process—but rarely how the political process, aesthetic logic, or dominant narratives about land and place have shaped or been shaped by a desire to extract or exploit.

Works Progress Studio is collaborating with political science researcher Roopali Phadke from Macalester college on a public art and engagement project related to her research. With support from the National Science Foundation, Phadke is studying the arguments and narratives for and against new mining projects in Minnesota and elsewhere. Her research and our artistic project will both incorporate stories about the relationships between people, land, and place in communities where mining has been a primary means of economic development, and people have been impacted by the boom and bust cycles that result. We are asking, among other questions, How do we live between the boom and the bust? 

For this public art and engagement project in 2016-17 we will building a new (mobile) memorial overlook, a structure big enough for people to stand and view the changing landscape. With local partners and residents, we will bring this overlook to places across the Iron Range, using it as a platform for conversation, for viewing the landscape, and for proposing new social and ecological imaginings. As part of this research we are asking residents to consider their place in the past, present, and future of mining, and to share stories about the impact of mining on land, economy, environment, and narrative.