Project Origins

On a  beautiful fall day in November 2017, I visited the DIA Beacon Foundation in upstate New York where my attention was caught by a new publication, Black Diamond Dust, laying face up in the museum book shop—prime art-world real estate for a modest publication like this one: 

I thought—Mining! Fragmented communities! I know about this because I experienced first-hand the toxic waste from what was, at the time, the world’s largest underground, and later, open-pit copper mine flowing down the Clark’s Fork of the Columbia River through Missoula, my hometown, each spring depositing layers of toxic mud behind the Milltown Dam. We were told never to eat fish caught in the river. Being an avid fisherman and an aspiring aquatic biologist, I deeply resented the entire industry and its apologists. But that was back in the 1940’s and 50’s, and only the opening act. In 1982 the Anaconda Company ceased mining operations in the Berkeley Pit which immediately began to fill with a mixture of water, sulphuric acid, and heavy metals. In 2023 the “water” that is filling the abandoned pit is predicted to reach the critical depth of nearly 1700 feet at which point it will enter the groundwater and consequently find its way into the headwaters of the Columbia River watershed continually and in perpetuity. Within the next couple of years, the mine owners will start pumping and treating the water, releasing it into one of the creeks that feeds the Clark Fork. But the technology has never been tested on this scale and might well fail, re-contaminating the river.

Here, in America’s backyard, our national sacrifice zone, we are up-close and personal witnesses to the toxic effects of oil, gas, coal, and mineral extraction on our environment and in our communities. For this reason alone Montana and, by extension, the entire American West, is a ready-made stage on which to present an international event designed to highlight art on the edge of the abyss.

A collaborative project of this size and shape has never happened before in the American West. Judging from the overwhelmingly positive responses I have received in conversation with museum directors, curators, photographers, artists, writers, humanities programs etc., we are on to something.

What happened in Butte is still happening today and will continue into the forseeable future—in Montana as well as in California, Indonesia, Chile, Mexico, Canada, Australia, China, Mozambique, Russia, etc. Montana is just another place where art is RARE; instead, we are long on coal mines, fracking, dying forests, tremendous fires, tourism, endangered National Parks, agribusiness, and missile silos too.

The Big Question is: What can we as artists and as citizens do to confront the situation today and then again tomorrow? Can we propose an alternative? Can we envision a slower better world? Can we distract and usurp attention from the media feeding on Trump and terror? Can we make ourselves heard around the American West? Around the World?

In the beginning I never imagined that this idea of multiple simultaneous events, actions, and exhibitions would spread beyond Montana, but the wave is moving and we are reaching Alaska, Idaho, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Wyoming, too. We have added book arts centers in Minneapolis, Minnesota and New York City. Artists in Mexico and Paris are responding.

This project is about synergy and working together to produce an event and a template for further interventions of this nature. Events will be staggered throughout the summer of 2021 so we can all attend openings, events, and symposia.

We actively invite partners, museums, galleries, artists, and patrons in sympathy with our goals. Please consider joining us.

 —Peter Koch

28 February 2018