Large-scale installations are scattered throughout the Ruhr Valley, perched on top of the area's many spoil tips (hills created by the accumulation of soil and rock extracted from the region's former mines). The Tetrahedron can be found on the Beckstraße slag heap in Bottrop. It was created in 1995 as part of the IBA Emscherpark. This Bottrop landmark is one of the most popular monuments and viewpoints in the Ruhr Valley.
Along the path to the structure, one can read several explanatory panels that weave links between the myth of Icarus, the Tetrahedron, and the miners’ dreams of progress from the underground. The 210-ton steel structure stands 120 m above sea level and rests on four reinforced concrete columns that separate it from the ground. At night, when the Tetrahedron is lit up, it appears to be floating. Several stairs give access to observation platforms suspended from the main structure at different heights. You can experience a 360° view from 18, 32, and 38 meters high.
Once at the top of the construction, a panoramic spectacle of the entire Emscher region and the Ruhr valley unfolds. You can see the gasometer in Oberhausen, the Arena AufSchalke in Gelsenkirchen, all the other spoil tips in the area, and the Essen skyline. In the distance, you can see Duisburg and even Düsseldorf.
The day of our visit, the sky is clear. All around us are the remains of the great industrial area of the Ruhr. The originally flat landscape is now punctuated by small, identical hills. It is striking to imagine that these tons of earth have been torn from the depths of the underground, thanks to the sweat of men, over many decades. A few kilometers away, you can see no less than five old mines with the buildings that were once used for the extraction, sorting, and cleaning of coal. The most impressive of these is, of course, Zeche Zollverein which was one of the largest mining sites in all of Europe. Today, there are still many active factories in the vicinity releasing their thick smoke into the sky.
Looking at the horizon, we notice a huge hall that houses an artificial ski slope nearby. A luxury a few years ago, hitting a fake snow track in a shed has become an affordable and accessible recreation for locals. This artificial snow is the result of many marvels of modern engineering. Failing to be able to fly off the Tetrahedron like Icarus, the grandchildren of the miners can descend artificial snow-covered slopes.
The weather that day couldn't have been more appropriate. It was not only bad but absolutely horrible weather: a gray low sky, a fine sticky drizzle, a humid cold that chills to the bone no matter how many layers you have on. Martin, our guide and driver for the day, picked us up from our Airbnb in Essen South. We set out to meet with Antje Gerlach who lives in Erkelenz, about an hour away to the west. The trip between Essen and Erkelenz sets the tone for the day ahead, it is a succession of crowded highways crossing industrial landscapes, devoid of any vegetation. Towards the end of the drive, the motorway runs for several kilometers along the north of Garzweiler mine. From the highway, the apparition of the mine is sudden and surreal, it is impossible to perceive its limits.
We arrive at Antje's--a pretty, warm and modest house with a yellow cross out front. She offers us coffee in her kitchen, her husband listens to our discussions from the sofa, occasionally chiming in. Antje is part of an association called Alle Doerfer Bleiben (All Villages Must Stay), an activist group that brings together residents from several local villages at risk of being destroyed by the expansion of Garzweiler mine. Through rallies, leaflets, and various actions, Alle Doerfer Bleiben calls out to local authorities and the media in an attempt to halt the mine's advances. More than a dozen villages are slated to be razed in the years to come, and more than 35 have already been erased and displaced by the mine already.
In most of the conversations we had with people during our time in NRW, mining and extraction were typically seen as a thing of the past, a proud if complicated period in NRW’s history and cultural identity, but something that was no longer a part of its present. Yet here the Garzweiler and nearby Hambach mines still produce 100 million tons of lignite each year, a type of brown coal that is the least energy-efficient and therefore most polluting kind of coal on the planet. Germany has promised to fully phase out coal-based power, which currently makes up 30% of the country’s energy supply, by 2038, and lignite mines like Garzweiler and Hambach are racing to extract as much coal as they can before that deadline. Which, for locals like Antje, means losing one's home.
We leave the comfort of Antje’s house to go to a viewpoint overlooking the mine. A few kilometers away, this footbridge offers visitors a breathtaking view of Garzweiler. It looks like a tourist attraction with heroic explanatory panels from the mining company RWE which proudly detail the technological marvels unfolding in front of us.
The sky seems even lower and grayer than in the morning, a luminous white halo and a thick drizzle saturate the scene with an eerie gloom. We are quickly soaked and frozen, as much by the rain as by this chilling vision before our eyes: a hole so immense that it is impossible to guess either the background or the outline.
A huge machine called a “bagger” is excavating slowly and tirelessly. This gem of engineering is “the largest machine ever built on Earth”, a feat of human ingenuity used here for the methodical destruction of everything it encounters. At times, the landscape seems motionless. With the rain, it is difficult to see into the distance.
The first time you discover a mine like this one, you are bound to be struck by the terrifying beauty of a landscape so different from everything you know, resembling the terrain of some distant planet. After a few minutes, once your brain has comprehended the substance behind the form, one cannot help but be gripped by a profound sense of grief at this dystopian vision. Environmental scholar Rob Nixon theorized this phenomenon as “slow violence,” a violence so silent, distant, and slow that it is not comprehensible to the mind.
It’s almost hard to grasp that we are standing in front of the largest coal mine in Europe. Day and night, non-stop, this bagger machine and a dozen other just like it devour the earth in search of coal. This surface coal, lignite, is the dirtiest and least energy-efficient coal on the planet. Very shallow, it requires the mine to expand horizontally, indiscriminately destroying everything in the vicinity: villages, roads, churches, schools, shops. In its wake, it leaves behind a barren landscape, a graveyard of sorts.
Norbert Winzen is a resident of Kayenberg, a village that was founded in the 9th century and is the next village slated to be destroyed by the expansion of Garzweiler mine. Norbert unwittingly became an activist and a spokesperson of the movement against Garzweiler and Hambach mines at both a local and national level. The son of a farmer and a nutritionist by trade, he inherited his family farm with his brother, and today three families live on this site.
Norbert and his family have been fighting mining company RWE for almost 35 years. They live with the constant threat of having their farm expropriated and destroyed. Norbert is pleasant, calm and composed, and is a clear and compelling communicator, which has made him popular with journalists. He quickly realized that putting his story in the media was his best chance to save his home. He is tired of this fight but acknowledges that it is now bigger than his own story. He has become a spokesperson and his farm an emblem and a place of gathering where different groups fighting against RWE can come together and join together in their shared fight.
He tells us that in a few days, in the lead-up to important elections in Germany, Greta Thunberg will come to his farm after visiting the activists who have built a new resistance site a few kilometers away, in front of the mine. Despite his role as figurehead, he confesses that if he could have chosen to not be part of this story, he would be very happy to have a life "like everyone else" and that if his house had been elsewhere, he would never have been involved in this fight.
We spent a good hour with him, touring the farm in gloomy weather. In the back, crossing a small strip of land where a few cows graze, we find a giant hole, an open wound just at the back of his field. It is a strange sensation to find the edge of a gigantic mine "in your garden’s backyard". At any moment, it could swallow Norbert's farm and his family's history.
Norbert is hopeful that the upcoming elections will change the mine's end date, which is currently set at 2038. If moved up by a few years, his village (what remains of it) and those around would be spared. He is one of the few remaining residents of Keyenberg to refuse to be relocated to "Neu Keyenberg", a brand new village of cookie cutter new constructions where RWE is relocating voluntary residents or those who have given up on the costly and endless legal proceedings.
A few kilometers away, we stop at a crossroads. To our right, there is nothing on the horizon. It feels like we are in the middle of a construction site. We are facing Immerath, what used to be a village of 230 inhabitants that was completely razed in 2018, including its 19th-century church, to make way for the mine. There is no trace of a village, not a pebble, not a bush, not the slightest vestige of the human activities that have taken place there for centuries. Even the cemetery was turned over, moved, and then razed to the ground.
Our final stop is Lutzerath, or what remains of it. A farmer has resisted RWE's expropriation procedures for years and has decided, as a last resort, to host a group of activists on his land. The activists have built several tree houses facing the mine and are preparing to stand their ground for the winter. A few weeks from our visit, the police will be able to legally dislodge the farmer, as well as anyone on his land, to make way for the bulldozers.
Almost all the roads have been cut and we have to make a detour to go from Keyenberg to Lutzerath. Geographically isolating pockets of the resistance is one of the strategies that forces people to give up the fight. RWE has the time, the money, and the political power to wait them out. Opposite the mine is an information point with lots of posters and banners for Alle Doerfer Bleiben. Several large surrounding buildings are watched by security guards paid by RWE to prevent activists from occupying them. At the center of the farm is a camp where about twenty people come and go. Some build wood houses in a large field--it will accommodate visitors who will come as reinforcements soon--others are busy in the common kitchen, a small group is talking at a table. There are already fifteen small houses suspended in the row of trees facing the mine. This is where the new front of the struggle stands. We are cold and soaked. It's a difficult day but it allows us to put personal stories behind an abstract fight.
Before bringing Antje home, we make a final detour to "Neue Keyenberg". This new village, built by RWE on undeveloped land, is quite depressing. We have the impression of walking on a giant construction site where everything seems wrong, like a not very successful Simcity. Antje explains to us that once the "old" Keyenberg is completely demolished, then RWE removes the "Neue" from the signs in the new village. As if the original Keyenberg had never existed, erased from collective memory to be able to pretend the new Keyenberg had always been there. When people like Antje and Norbert block the total destruction of the original village, the inhabitants of the new one complain that they cannot have the "original" name. The residents of Neue Keyenberg, resigned to their displacement, the disappearance of their homes, their schools, their churches and a lifetime of memories, come to have resentment for those who still struggle, and who in doing so, prolong their mourning.
We visited Axel Braun in his workshop in Essen. We discovered his work because he was one of the first artists to receive the EON/RWE foundation artist-in-residency grant in 2011. RWE is the leading coal mining company in Germany.
Axel mainly uses photography to develop research-intensive projects around the degradation of nature, investigating both contemporary landscapes as well as historical ones. In his light-filled studio in the center of Essen, he told us about the great freedom he enjoyed while carrying out his project with RWE, despite the often tense debates caused by his work within the company due to its critical perspective.
Axel admits that it is difficult for a local artist to tackle issues related to the exploitation of coal, which has been the beating heart of NRW's economy for years, and is still regarded with pride today. He admits that it’s only until very recently that he has felt ready to dig into these questions in his own backyard, whereas he has been developing numerous projects on ecological and geological disasters in Switzerland, Italy and Poland.
He showed us mock-ups of an online project he started working on during lockdown, despite having no prior knowledge of web development. We talk about the challenges he is facing in tackling this new media format, as well as his enthusiasm for experimenting with non-linear, pluralist storytelling techniques that are afforded by these new tools.
Before we leave, he shows us a recent photo he took of the historic RWE building in the heart of Essen, currently being "dismantled", a symbol of the end of an era.
Essen's nickname is “the city of shopping”. The central pedestrian street takes you directly from the train station to the huge Limbecker Platz shopping center with no less than 200 stores over 70,000 square meters. One of the largest malls in all of Germany, it was inaugurated in 2009.
On the lower level, in the center of space, you can discover a children's coal-themed playground. Kids can have fun riding carts resembling coal wagons in front of a stylized mining landscape. A little further, at the bottom of the escalators, one can find several statues paying homage to the shining era of industrial mining as the source of the region's wealth and prosperity.
Founded in 2002, PACT Zollverein is a venue dedicated to the fields of dance, performance, theatre, media, and art at the interface of science, technology, and society. Situated inside the former pithead bath at the Zollverein colliery, it is a unique space with a very present history. During the renovation of the building, many traces of the former usage were kept.
During our visit, we saw the former showers, lockers and changing rooms used by miners at the end of their shift. This gave us a sense of the enormous quantity of workers who would pass by this site at every hour of the day.
The director explained to us his vision of a lively place focused on fostering experimentation, discussions, workshops, and artist residencies. PACT is active on a regional, national and international level in advancing the fields of dance and performance as independent art forms.
We ended our visit with an open discussion on how some of these industrial sites can become very much “museified” and frozen in time, making it challenging to keep things alive and moving.
The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex (German Zeche Zollverein) is a large former industrial site. The first coal mine on the premises was founded in 1847, and mining activities took place from 1851 until 1986. A small part of Zollverein is still active today, managed by RAG foundation in order to monitor various underground water pumping activities that have been centralized there. For decades Zollverein Coal Mine and Zollverein Coking Plant comprised one of the largest mining complexes of Europe. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
Together with the NEW NOW artists-in-residence, we had a very special tour of the Zollverein site, exploring the various buildings and surrounding areas with a local German guide who does stand-up comedy on the side. We were eager to learn about the mine's history, operations, the lives of its workers, and impact on the local community and ecosystem. Our guide's playful, lighthearted delivery style--punctuated by plenty of jokes and impersonations in an effort to bring the scene to life for us--made for an interesting contrast with the heaviness of the subject matter, particularly when discussing the exploitation of workers and animals, and the lasting environmental destruction.
Zollverein is where we spent the majority of our time in Essen, working inside the Mischenlage, the old mixing plant of the mine, alongside our fellow NEW NOW Residents. Like many of the former industrial sites we visited, Zollverein seems to be a fixture in the lives of locals, a popular site for bike riding and outdoor recreation. Nearby residents walk their dogs along its "renatured" walking trails, lined with wildflowers, blackberry bushes, and butterfly plants, and on the weekends, families bring their children here to play. Weddings, conferences, and events are frequently held in its various refurbished buildings, no doubt because Zollverein, which was partly built in the Bauhaus style, is among the most architecturally beautiful mines in Europe.
Since 2018, Urbane Künste Ruhr is a decentralized institution for contemporary art in the Ruhr region, under the artistic direction of Britta Peters. Founded as part of European Capital of Culture RUHR.2010, the project works in cooperation with local and international partners to initiate projects in public spaces, exhibitions, residency programmes and events. A long-term cooperation project is the permanent sculpture trail Emscherkunstweg.
We loved the installation by American artist Asad Raza situated in the city center of Essen, in a former bank office, organized as part of the exhibition Ruhr Ding Klima, which took place summer 2021. With Absorption, Raza occupies the entire ground floor on the corner of a busy pedestrian street. The space is filled with soil, a material that is central to sustaining all life on earth, yet one that is easily overlooked and misunderstood. During the exhibition's 5 week run, a team of "cultivators" took care of this soil on a daily basis.
Under scientific supervision, they watered, measured, and added various components and nutrients to the mixture of clay, sand, and compost. With the goal of using locally sourced organic and inorganic material to enrich the soil, the cultivators made decisions about the quantity and type of “ingredients” to add: sewage sludge, waste paper, hair, burned wood, cacao beans. Visitors were invited to fill a linen bag with the "neosoil" created through this process, which could be used to fertilize gardens and allotments. At the end of the exhibition, the remaining soil was donated to the Bochum Botanical Garden.
The day was not particularly sunny and even a bit gloomy. Nevertheless, our visit to Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord felt a bit magical. Everywhere we went in NRW, we heard about how the area was re-naturing, restoring natural ecosystems in areas that had suffered toxic pollution and environmental degradation from more than a century of mining and industrial activity. We might have some reservations regarding the way these concepts are applied, but Landschaftspark was certainly the most convincing example we saw.
The park is situated on a former coal and steel production plant that was abandoned in 1985, leaving the area significantly polluted. The project was designed in 1991 by Latz + Partner, who chose to incorporate the industrial past, rather than trying to erase it. They left the structures and polluted soils in place, using phytoremediation as the main method for cleaning the toxic soils, and finding new, often surprising, uses for most of the old structures.
The intent was to honor the history of the original site--not as a monument to the past, static and calcified, but rather as a living memory that changes and evolves each time it’s revisited. Today, this brownfield site is a popular space for recreation and environmental education, as well as a local hotspot for biodiversity.
Walking around Landschaftspark can feel a bit like exploring a post-dystopian landscape where nature has reclaimed and integrated itself into the industrial ruins, with plant shoots bursting out from rusted steel beams and giant, almost prehistoric-looking vines climbing up the sides of buildings. Children practice rock climbing on former chemicals reserve tanks, the former gas sello has been repurposed as a scuba diving training facility, and photoshoots and film shoots are taking place in multiple locations around the park--all contributing to the general sense of surreality.
Marxloh is the Turkish district of Duisburg. We went there to walk around, have a Turkish lunch, and experience the community vibe that emerged from the large Turkish population that emigrated to Germany to work in the coal and steel industry. Marxloh's main commercial street is an opulent mix of bridal shops and jewelry stores, and is sometimes called “Germany's wedding mile.” Nestled between these are shops selling sweet and savory Turkish delicacies, family restaurants and crowded cafeterias.
2021 marked the 60th anniversary of the recruitment agreement between Germany and Turkey. The agreement brought hundreds of thousands of Turkish Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, to work in coal mines and steel factories, providing an inexpensive labor supply that fueled the country's postwar economy. Today, there are as many as 3 million people of Turkish heritage living in the country, making up Germany's largest ethnic minority. About 900,000 Turks arrived between 1961 and 1973. Germany long resisted the notion that it had become a country for immigration, considering these workers as people who would eventually go back home. Nevertheless, in time the "guest worker" programme's legacy irreversibly transformed German society.
During our residency, we spent many hours working at Cafe Livres, a bright, warm, and quirky cafe serving strong coffees and good food. When not on site at Zollverein or traveling for a site visit in NRW, Cafe Livres was our home away from home in Essen.
We visit Düsseldorf to catch the Augmented Reality Biennale at NRW Forum and attend the opening of the NRW's exhibition Willkommen im Paradies (Welcome to Paradise). While there, we had lunch with the NRW Forum's Artistic Director, Alain Bieber, who gave us a tour of the museum's beautiful gardens, where the AR Biennale was staged. The subject matter of the Willkommen im Paradies exhibition, which dealt with artistic visions of digitally enabled utopias that emerge as a response to global catastrophes, felt very close to some of our research themes.
It was difficult to visit many factories and research parks during our stay in NRW as most places were not welcoming visitors due to COVID restrictions and many people were working from home if that option was available to them. One place we did manage to visit in person was Fraunhofer IEG in Bochum, where the head of laboratories, Thomas Reinsch, was kind enough to give us a tour.
Thomas specializes in geothermal energy systems and we found out about his lab because it also functions as a demo site for carbon capture, in partnership with the Icelandic program GECO, an EU-funded initiative run by Reykyavik Energy that pairs geothermal energy production with carbon capture in order to offset emissions created during this process.
Thomas's lab is also investigating how old mine shafts might be combined with geothermal energy to provide more energy-efficient heating solutions.
During the first week of our residency, the NEW NOW team organized an expedition to the Geopark Ruhrgebiet where a team of geologists helped us understand how NRW came to be such a hot spot for coal mining, from a geological perspective. We learned about the Carboniferous era and the mammoth plants and insects that roamed that thrived in that carbon-rich atmosphere, organisms that would eventually form the dense, black coal that this region became famous for. We learned to pay particular attention to rock strata and recognize seams of coal among the layers of sedimentary rock.
They also shared with us a local fable about how coal was first discovered in the region, which is apparently taught to school children even to this day: A young boy who was shepherding a small flock of sheep or pigs got lost on his way home and had to make camp for the night. He built a fire to keep himself and his flock warm and lined the perimeter of the firepit with some black rocks he found on the ground. When he woke up in the morning, he was surprised to discover that his fire was still burning. Variations of this story exist all over the region.
Here in NRW, we spoke to researchers at Covestro who have been using carbon captured from steel gas mills to create sustainable plastics and foams for use in mattresses, car seats, and even shoes for Olympic athletes.
Carbon capture is a controversial technological intervention into the earth’s atmosphere. On the one hand, many believe that we must urgently develop processes for removing CO2, either from the air, like the Orca Climeworks plant, or directly at industrial sites where fossil fuels are burned. Today, there is a growing start-up industry dedicated to finding new uses for captured CO2 with the goal of making it a valuable commodity and creating economic incentives for its air-born extraction. Companies like Covestro are using captured CO2 to produce foam, concrete and cement, ink and paints, diamonds, and even vodka.
We met with Stefan and Gabriele from RWTH Aachen who are working on a transdisciplinary project called RIVIERa to co-design the Reinisch region’s transformation together with community stakeholders and industry partners, as well as Zukunfstagentur (Future Agency), the organization selected by the government to organize the transition plan.
In addition to switching to renewable energy production such as wind or solar power and re-naturing former mine sites, some of the initiatives being explored as part of the 15 billion euros effort include: AI research parks, hydrogen production centers, quantum computing, new materials research and biotechnology. All in all, there are more than 70 initiatives being explored, many of them leveraging local expertise in mechanical and chemical engineering to develop solutions for improving energy efficiency and decarbonizing industry and manufacturing.
These initiatives include projects like Smart Urban Skin, a textile facade that could envelop buildings to generate electricity vertically and help reduce energy consumption.
The Kopernikus Power-to-X projects, which explore how to convert renewable electricity into plastics, fuels, gases, heat, chemicals and cosmetics.
And Carbon2Chem, a project of ThyssenKrupp, which explores how to use CO2 emissions from the company’s steel production plants as raw material for new chemicals.