“I guess the kind of starting place, for me, with this project… the project being a sort of fantasy animation which is reimagining the history of coal but I’m actually using a game engine to make it, so I’m also drawing on all these tropes of simulation and different concepts of video games as well.
And I basically had this experience of visiting a former coal town called Centralia which is now a ghost town. Basically, it was destroyed by a mine fire. I visited that place right after the election of Donald Trump, when coal miners entered the kind of popular discourse on this really intense way. They were kind of, um, either lionized or vilified depending on who was using their image and story.
I was there at this place that had been totally destroyed by this industry and I was like, ‘what the heck is going on here?’
You believe what you hear in the news, you would think that people working in the coal industry love it unconditionally and it’s like all they want to do. But then if you actually go to these place, you’ll see that it destroys the environment and poisons the people living there oftentimes. The more contemporary mining practices actually involve totally destroying mountains completely and dynamiting a whole mountain, scoop up all the coal, and the rest gets pushed into the valley. It’s pretty extreme.
The research was wanting to understand the kind of world historical forces that brought us to this point, this weird misunderstood history, this weird of understanding this place, its people, the culture…
There’s this weird kind of goofy fun, and at the same time, there’s like this profound culture of death up in the air. So, in a way, I’m hoping that my project, it’s like a world-building project, in the way that like Tolkien does it. In a way, it’s been hard for me to figure out the story because there’s so many little vignettes of these characters I want to include in this world I’m building. The idea is to offer an alternative kind of mythology of the place... based on the FEELING of the history and speaks to some of the truths, to some of the systemic forces that has shaped Appalachia...
The shaping of that region really began with the founding of the country. It’s either been a frontier or resource periphery for all of American history. It’s been sometimes celebrated, sometimes demonized.
I also was interested in the rhetoric about coal, because it complicates the production of race in American life across history with Appalachia. We have the stereotype of the hillbilly, there is this management of what whiteness is and it’s really, on the one hand, it’s been used by white supremacists as this cajole of Republican parties basically as like ‘uh no, white people can be poor too!’ It’s like really weird, evil rhetoric. Most of that history happens in places which are shaped indelibly by the current discourse about Confederate monuments. A lot of that stuff happened in these same places. In fact, in history, there’ll be a guy involved in a labor uprising against the coal companies and his great-grandfather was a Confederate lieutenant fighting in the Civil War. There’s like these family legacies of resistance, what resistance means in different moments in U.S. history.”
-Nick Crockett, MFA Art 2019