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Friendship with coal | Conversation with Prof. Marta Tomczok

16.05.2023 - 08:25 update 23.06.2023 - 11:22
Editors: wc-a
Tags: nauki humanistyczne

Dr hab. Marta Tomczok, prof. UŚ

Marta Tomczok, PhD, DLitt, Assoc. Prof. | Photo by Matylda Klos

| Małgorzata Kłoskowicz |

In recent months, we have been receiving information about numerous sinkholes appearing in Trzebinia, in the area of the former shallow hard coal mining. These and other mining damages are nothing new in Upper Silesia, in Zagłębie Dąbrowskie or western Lesser Poland. We’ve been hearing about them for years. What is our relationship with the man-made landscape and with coal? What does Polish art has to say in regards to that? These are examples of questions asked by Marta Tomczok, PhD, DLitt, Associate Professor from the Faculty of Humanities. The researcher is looking for a solution in the idea of the symbiocene, proposing a symbiosis of man and nature.

MAŁGORZATA KŁOSKOWICZ, PHD: The environmental history of coal – this is one of the topics that you deal with scientifically. We are located in Upper Silesia, this topic is present in the research of scientists of many specialisations. However, it rarely appears in the humanities. Where does a literary scholar meet coal in her research?

PROF. MARTA TOMCZOK: I am close to the model of literary studies, which does without the literary text. Some time ago, a trend called pre-textual ethnography, originating in anthropological research, became fashionable. The centre of attention is the “head” of the researcher working in the field – their experiences, emotions, thoughts, phenomena, not necessarily recorded later in the form of text. This is field science, which you can read about, among others, in in the book entitled Humanistyka prewencyjna [Preventive Humanities], developed by the RAT (Resilience Academic Team) group working under the direction of Prof. Ewa Domańska from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. It is a team that proposes various adaptation strategies in a situation of permanent crisis. I conduct research together with my husband, Paweł. For him, the field is a space for testing certain recognitions that he finds in historical knowledge and in the text. A model example is Homeless people by Stefan Żeromski. Paweł analysed old maps, articles, reportages, documents, which, combined with field research, allowed to better embed the literary text in reality. We know that Judym would go down to a specific mine, walked with Korzecki along specific sinkholes and saw poverty at this specific zinc smelter. You read literature completely differently then. I, in turn, need contact the field experience in order to feel emotions, which in my case are a kind of trigger for further research. These emotions are important to me. They show me where I am. Post-industrial ruins are particularly close to my heart. Frequent field trips make us realise that we live in a post-industrial landscape. In many cases, nature becomes the host of the mining infrastructure. Yesterday, my husband and I visited the premises of the Jadwiga coking plant in Zabrze, which has been operating for over a hundred years. The concrete fence protecting the building is full of holes in many places. So the thing that is meant for protection also falls into ruin.

MAŁGORZATA KŁOSKOWICZ, PHD: There is no shortage of such facilities in our region. How do you choose the destination of your micro-expeditions?

PROF. MARTA TOMCZOK: The choice of places I visit as part of my research is related to my project “Ostatnia tona”  [“The Last Ton”]. I was interested in closed mines. I was looking for, among others, wagons with the last ton. I have already tested this route. Few of the dozens of objects have survived. Old maps are of help to me. The most stunning places, however, are the cement factories, the ruins of which are still standing in our region. One is located in Jaworzno, the other is the Grodziec cement plant in Będzin. Naturally, we ask ourselves why these places are not renovated? How on earth are they still standing? What makes them look the way they do?

MAŁGORZATA KŁOSKOWICZ, PHD: The region in which we are located, i.e. Upper Silesia, Zagłębie, but also western Lesser Poland, is marked by elements of this landscape. The term mining damage is nothing new here. Currently, there is a lot of talk about sinkholes in Trzebinia, Olkusz and Bolesław. Last year, the media reported on the Sztola river in Bukowno, which simply disappeared as a result of turning off the pumps of the Olkusz-Pomorzany mine, leaving an empty, sandy bed… Is this research about the memory of the mine shaft? About mine chimneys? About the river?

PROF. MARTA TOMCZOK: I will use the term symbiocene of the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, the author of the important concept of solastalgia, i.e. melancholic longing for a landscape that is irretrievably coming to pass. The Symbiocene is an alternative to the undesirable and increasingly overwhelming Anthropocene. It gives the opportunity to establish good relations with the landscape that passes. Bukowno and Trzebinia are clear examples of areas where such relationships can be established. Until recently, the picturesque Sztoła river flowed in Bukowno, named after the mine adit. Over the years, it has created a wonderful landscape. After the Olkusz-Pomorzany mine was closed and the pumps we turned off, it dried up and has not yet been able to regenerate naturally, because its sandy bottom absorbs water. My husband and I walked a few kilometres along its bed. We have made an attempt to establish a good relationship with what has been destroyed. It is not a funeral, as in the case of a melting glacier, on which a mourning sheet is put, but the experience of waiting for something new. The river will recover, I truly believe that it will. The second experience was related to watching the sinkholes in Trzebinia. Although they are not a safe space for humans, they are located within their habitats and are the result of human activity. You can’t completely isolate them, it’s naturoindustria.

MAŁGORZATA KŁOSKOWICZ, PHD: Can a researcher afford private experiences and stop there?

PROF. MARTA TOMCZOK: Science has never been anything else. Our private, personal biographical experiences, individual interests, talents or abilities have always led us to specific research topics. However, it was only the paradigm in which we rooted our research that determined the way of talking about these experiences. I believe that we should legitimise science with private experience because it has the strongest impact on the recipient. This is a responsible approach that guarantees an alliance with the reader, listener and viewer. I get involved, you get involved too. Especially that the anthropology of these studies is based on a direct relationship with the place, inherited from generation to generation.

MAŁGORZATA KŁOSKOWICZ, PHD: You are the author of scientific publications, monographs, reports, essays, but also a member of the curatorial team of the exhibition ‘Underground. Subterra incognita” shown at the turn of February and March 2023 at the BWA Contemporary Art Gallery in Katowice. Is it the richness of experience that opens us up to various forms of expression?

PROF. MARTA TOMCZOK: I like get involved in different genres. As a researcher, I do not shy away from writing scientific papers, but reportage or essays are also close to my heart. An interesting experience was the preparation of an exhibition showing the interpenetration of artistic, scientific and engineering forms. We exhibited not only paintings, but also literary texts and photographs. Although the leading theme was coal, we used the idiom: żyjemy na grząskim gruncie [we live on shaky ground]. This perfectly reflects the reality in which we currently operate.

MAŁGORZATA KŁOSKOWICZ, PHD: In the art of painting or in photography, coal is present. What about literature?

PROF. MARTA TOMCZOK: Let me start by distinguishing two topics. Coal as an object of interest in art will not be the same as the ongoing energy transformation. I do not perceive the coal that interests me the most in an anthropocentric way. I want to look at it subjectively, give it agency. In our culture it is a colonised object, it is a black slave, the other. This is excellently described by the already mentioned Stefan Żeromski in Homeless People. The author allows Judym in the mine, in an almost narcotic vision, to see Carboniferous plants, and then the process of coal formation similar to a black monster formed in terrible conditions. So it is vicious, firstly because of these conditions, secondly because people treat it badly by bringing it to the surface. I am looking for such living and subjective coal in art. I would definitely like to mention the paintings of Ludwik Holesz from Świerklany Dolne, a miner working in KWK Moszczenica, who was active in the second half of the 20th century. He painted many paintings, including the Era karbońska [Carbon Era] series. It fascinates me why he was interested in living coal, why he presented it in the form of multi-coloured plants. Another example is the poetry of Bolesław Lubosz from Tarnowskie Góry, the author of the excellent volume Milczenie węgla [The silence of coal]. Entering the underground, he experienced geological time in a special way. I recently found this reflection in Tadeusz Kijonka’s poems – here also an important point of reference in the form of geology appears. What knowledge did you need to have to look at coal in this way, to understand it in this way? It’s incredible! Coal, of which we had a lot in culture between 1940 and 1989, had a politicised, economic dimension. Andrzej Ścibor-Rylski’s novel, simply titled Węgiel [Coal], tells the story of miners from the Anna-Weronika mine and is primarily concerned with the race related to the amount of extracted raw material and the implementation of mining plans. In turn, the direct relationship between man and coal is described in Opowieści o Janku górniku [The Tale of Janek the Miner] by Zofia Bukowiecka. There are also books by Franciszek Klon, called the Polish Julius Verne, a completely undiscovered author. I will also mention Monika Warneńska and her Podziemny trop [Underground trail]. However, coal shown in this way is scarce in the literature.

MAŁGORZATA KŁOSKOWICZ, PHD: There is still the issue of energy transformation mentioned by you. Does does Polish art react to these changes? And if so, how?

PROF. MARTA TOMCZOK: I believe that this is a topic that should be addressed more in the literature. Its task is to imagine and speculate the world of energy culture change. There is no thread communicating science in this way. In my opinion, literature, and even more broadly, art, should take the role of educators. Meanwhile, they remain stubbornly silent. Przemysław Pilarski’s play Węgla nie ma [There is no coal], which is excellent, in this respect could do much more. The text, received enthusiastically by the audience, ended with the message that the best energy is… love. I expect more from art. How is Polish culture decarbonising in this difficult, though important, time? It is decarbonising poorly, even worse than the industry itself.

MAŁGORZATA KŁOSKOWICZ, PHD: This problem affects the whole country, not just one region…

PROF. MARTA TOMCZOK: And yet it is a pointless to look for it on the front pages of newspapers. Just a few months ago we were afraid that we would run out of coal in the winter. At the moment, activities related to the closure of mines are accelerating. Intensive work is underway to introduce the so-called green energy. There’s a lot going on, while in art the response is again small. I would definitely like to mention the report by Karolina Baca-Pogorzelska and Michał Potocki Czarne złoto. Wojny o węgiel z Donbasu [Black gold. Wars over coal from Donbass.]. We also have two works by Magdalena Okraska: Nie ma i nie będzie [There isn’t and there won’t be] and Ziemia jałowa. Opowieść o Zagłębiu [Waste land. The story of Zagłębie.]. I am also waiting for Filip Springer’s book Mein Gott, jak pięknie [My God, how beautiful]. And that would be it… I have the impression that we live in bubbles and that most of our society is not fully aware of what is happening. It seems that smog, the energy crisis, the effects of climate change are not their problems. They live as if they were not experiencing the catastrophe of the Anthropocene. Only some, like now the inhabitants of Trzebinia or Bukowno, can say something more, but does anyone want to listen to them? This is the space for art. Finally, I would like to return to coal. It is not the cause of the catastrophe, the cause is what man has done with it. Examining it, for the first time, I have the impression that I am touching something really close and important to me. This relationship has become a source of clean, good energy for me.

MAŁGORZATA KŁOSKOWICZ, PHD: Thank you for the conversation.

Article ‘Friendship with coal’ was published in the April issue of University of Silesia Magazine No. 7 (307).

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