An Interview with Sam Pelts

By Amy Brady

This month I have for you an interview with Sam Pelts, a founding organizer of EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss. The project’s goal is to encourage individual artists as well as museums and galleries across the country and around to the world to schedule art installations, book readings, and public programming that speak to themes of extraction. 

As explained in the project’s impressive catalogue, extractive industries have led to some of the biggest problems our planet faces, including climate change; the deterioration of land, water, and air; the devastation and displacement of vulnerable communities; and much else. The project’s participating artists and institutions make those links clear in their art.

I spoke with Sam about why he and his colleagues launched EXTRACTION, the artists involved, and his thoughts on the roles that art and writing can play in our global fight against climate change.

Tell me more about EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss. What is it, and what are its goals?

EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss is a multimedia, multi-venue, cross-border art movement which seeks to provoke change by exposing and interrogating the negative social and environmental consequences of industrialized natural resource extraction. Essentially, we are a global coalition of artists and creators committed to shining a light on all forms of extractive industry – from mining and drilling to the reckless plundering and exploitation of fresh water, fertile soil, timber, marine life, and innumerable other resources across the globe. The Extraction Project will culminate in a constellation of over fifty overlapping exhibitions, performances, installations, site-specific work, land art, street art, publications, poetry readings, and cross-media events throughout 2021 and beyond.

In effect, the project is about harnessing the power of artistic expression to raise a ruckus about one of the most pressing environmental concerns of our time – the suicidal overconsumption of our planet’s resources. We’re thinking of “extractivism” as being at the root of almost every other environmental problem, including climate change. Given that the history of the extractive industry is one of untold suffering and damage inflicted on fenceline communities – disproportionately communities of color and Indigenous people – the need to include and lift up those voices is also critical to the story we’re trying to tell. The fight for the future of our planet cannot be won if it is left for scientists and policymakers alone, nor should the frontline soldiering be left to those vulnerable, disadvantaged, or disenfranchised communities who have no other choice than to resist as a matter of survival. Artists have a unique set of tools with which to engage these issues.

EXTRACTION Catalog and Exhibition Guide, published by the CODEX Foundation, 2020. Cover image: Léonie Pondevie, Carrière de clisson, 2019, digital photograph. Available at all participating Extraction Art venues.

What is your role in the project? And how did you get involved?

The Extraction Project was started in 2017 by two old friends from Montana: Edwin Dobb, a writer and environmental journalist for National Geographic and Harper’s Weekly; and Peter Koch, a letterpress printer, book artist, and founder of the CODEX Foundation, an arts nonprofit dedicated to elevating the art of fine bookmaking. I was brought on a year later to help figure out the logistics of getting the project off the ground – things like designing and maintaining our website and organizing our crowdfunding campaign.

My role in the project shifted pretty dramatically in 2019 when Ed tragically passed away, just a few weeks after Peter had been temporarily put out of commission by cancer treatments. Suddenly I looked around and realized that if this project was really going to get off the ground, then it was more-or-less up to me to make it happen. Taking on that central role was challenging at first, but I subsequently learned that organizing and coordinating this project – which allowed me to communicate directly with hundreds of artists and learn about and promote their art – was work I greatly enjoyed doing! I also felt that the best way for me to honor Ed’s life would be to help make his vision of a global art movement in defense of the planet – our only home – a reality.

Now that the wheels are in motion, the project has become much more decentralized and the artists and exhibition spaces who are involved are free to participate and collaborate as they see fit.

Who else do you hope gets involved with this project?

Anyone who wants to participate in the Extraction Project can be a part of it. You certainly don’t have to be a famous artist to get involved! I subscribe to the belief that not everyone has to be a climate scientist for us to collectively address climate change. Maybe you’re a painter or a storyteller. Everyone has their own skills and talents, and we can all respond to environmental issues by simply doing what each one of us is already good at.

We believe artists have a crucial role to play in sounding the alarm, bearing witness, and inspiring action. For those suffering from climate grief or eco-anxiety, making art may also serve a therapeutic role. Your way of being a part of the Extraction Project could be as simple as making art that helps you come to terms with the sense of loss you’re feeling about the changes our planet is undergoing. Anyone from the amateur to the virtuoso can post their artwork on Instagram with the hashtag #ExtractionArt.

Maybe it sounds a bit overly ambitious, but I would personally like to see literally every artistic person who cares about the environment get involved in this project. The whole point of Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss is to bring our voices together as one, signal boosting each other while at the same time building out a massive network and infrastructure of resources and potential like-minded collaborators.

Why is art and writing about climate change important? Can it show us something that other mediums can’t?

We recognize the unique power of artistic expression to evoke a more visceral and emotional response than, for instance, a peer-reviewed study or a set of statistics or graphs from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Most people understand the Greenhouse Effect on an intellectual level, and thus are able to recognize the logical connection between oil extraction – and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions from carbon burning – and the impact those processes have on global temperatures. But a lot of folks have not tried to come to terms with these largely invisible scientific phenomena on an emotional level. And when it hits you, it’s really intense, and can be quite motivating for many people. Young people get it, which is why they are out in the streets, striking. For some people it’s seeing polar bears stranded on icebergs, but for me, seeing aerial photographs of the Athabasca Tar Sands mines in Alberta, Canada can bring me nearly to tears.

Consider this idea of “the abyss” that’s in our project’s name – obviously a metaphor for the point of no return when it comes to acting on climate change. Science might be able to tell us the diameter of the abyss, how far away it is, and how fast we are heading toward it, but if you want to really look into the abyss and confront it with your whole being, you need art.

What are some of the themes that have emerged in the art and writing associated with the Extraction project? Did any of them surprise you?

The idea of “bearing witness” to these environmental injustices is certainly a common thread that weaves its way through many artists’ work. I was surprised to see the extent to which so many of these extraction sites are virtually invisible (except to those who know where to look), despite being close enough to cause major harm to fenceline communities. Shining a spotlight on these sites and facilities and putting them on display for everyone to see is a great way to short circuit the kind of “greenwashing” that the PR departments for extractive companies have become experts at in recent years. I mentioned the Tar Sands earlier. Just to continue with that example, I believe that if everyone on the planet was confronted with images of what tar sands mining does to the land and ecosystem of the boreal forests of Northern Canada, they would be shut down almost immediately. If everyone could see with their own eyes the massive tailings ponds, filled with enough toxic waste material to create a river of sludge 2,000 miles long, fossil fuels would be banned tomorrow.

Another theme that struck me was how much hope artists still have for the future. For every aerial photograph of an open pit mine, there is a vision for a better path forward. It’s worth remembering that while we may be dancing at the edge of the abyss, we have not yet fallen into it, and there is still a massive opportunity to change course, particularly over the next decade, which is crucial. To quote Rachel Carson: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

What’s next for Extraction and for you personally? Anything you’d like my readers to watch for?

I’d personally like to keep the project going as long as possible. If we get enough support, maybe it will become a biennial thing. In the near term, our website has information about all the upcoming exhibitions across the country and overseas. Shows and events will be happening all throughout this year, and chances are there will be at least one Extraction exhibition within driving distance for most of your readers. Folks can learn more at www.extractionart.org. The CODEX Foundation, which supports the Extraction Project as our fiscal sponsor, is also planning a wrap-up symposium called CODEX Yellowstone, and that will take place in September of 2022 in Bozeman, Montana. If your readers have questions they can also email me at sam@codexfoundation.org.

(Top image: Garth Lenz, Tar Mine and Roads, Northern Alberta, Canada, 2010, photograph)

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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