Lecturer in Creative and Cultural Industries; Member of Centre on Labour, Sustainability and Global Production (CLaSP)
What can art do to challenge and change an ingrained culture of exploiting the Earth’s resources at the cost of people and nature? A new book by a Queen Mary academic explores the economic system of ‘extractivism’ through the works of art that seek to overturn it.
“Extractivism is a term I began to work with when I was looking into problems in Argentina around the use of agrochemicals and pollution from open pit mines,” says Dr Paula Serafini, Lecturer in Creative and Cultural Industries in the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University of London.
Originally from Argentina, Dr Serafini has been living and working in the UK for 13 years. She continues: “Extractivism describes the economic system that’s common to many Latin American countries. It’s centred around the intensive and extensive exploitation of natural resources for export. This would include things like extracting oil and mining, but also large-scale agrobusiness.
“The most visible effects of extractivism are environmental damages. With open pit mining, there is destruction of mountains and water is diverted from human consumption and local farmers. In the case of agrobusiness, use of glyphosate and other herbicides and pesticides has exposed people living nearby to these highly toxic chemicals.”
“In Argentina, if you raise the alarm about environmental issues you are told you’re against development, or you’re labelled a ‘stoner environmentalist’, because you must be high to propose that we stop mining. But in fact, extractivism cuts across a range of social issues, including poverty and inequality.”
Dr Serafini saw the term extractivism being used by academics, activists and front-line communities she was working with in Latin America and adopted it as the framework for her book ‘Creating Worlds Otherwise’. The book explores how art is helping communities to call out, challenge and change this culture of exploitation. She describes five key functions of art in this context.
“Denunciation is the first,” Dr Serafini explains. “This is particularly relevant where we see media silence and even persecution of activists.” For example, the book features photographs by Pablo Piovano which capture the devastating health effects that glyphosate is having on people in the Argentine provinces of Entre Ríos and Sante Fe. “These photos were not being published in Argentina, but they have won recognition elsewhere and have been used as evidence at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
“The second is documentation. This means documenting the effects of extractivism, but also creating a living memorial of the anti-extractivism movement. This movement has been demonised but it’s also growing.” The book highlights a pop-up museum of neo-extractivism by artist duo Etcétera which includes a memorial wall to people who were crucial to the anti-extractivism movement who have died, some in the context of violent repression.
The third function is democratisation. “We have a very ingrained idea of Argentina as a provider of nature. That’s seen as our role in the economy of the world,” Dr Serafini says. “Imagining a different economy is difficult, so opening up a space that politicians and big business have really fought to constrain is important. Art is democratising the narrative by creating space where people can debate.
“Then we have deconstruction where art can unarm certain concepts. We have the nature-culture divide, but also specific gender and racial binaries that have been enforced since colonialism. These are hierarchical binaries that underpin our attitudes to nature, but they can be deconstructed.
“Finally, we have design. By being able to deconstruct ideas, art also allows space for designing other ways of being, not just envisaging alternatives but also putting them into practice, for example using art in education and art to organise activism.”
‘Creating Worlds Otherwise’ describes how art that is addressing extractivism in Argentina embodies some or all of these five functions. Dr Serafini continues: “I hope that more people will learn about extractivism and keep it in mind as we enter an era of energy transition. If we just change from oil powered cars to lithium battery electric cars, that means more extractivism in Latin America, where much of the planet’s accessible lithium is found.
"Yes, there is a climate crisis, but there is also a problem with extractivism, not least in regard to human health, biodiversity, inequality and the trampling of rights.”
She adds: “Writing this book has shown me that there are alternatives, if we look for them, and art is one way of working collectively towards those alternatives. We need a culture shift because if we don’t make the switch as a culture, that constraints political, social and economic transformations too.”
Creating Worlds Otherwise is published by Vanderbilt University Press and has recently been given an honourable mention in the Best Book in Latin American Visual Culture Studies category of the Latin American Studies Association awards.