Burrowing into the Earth

Central School Project, Bisbee, Arizona, 2007

Materials: Douglas fir timbers, cottonwood leaves gilded in copper leaf, copper plates etched with cottonwood leaves using a soft-ground, mule skulls, 1250 brass tags engraved with numbers, leather harness, candles, pine pitch, slag rock from old copper mine

A week after coming up with the title for this site-specific installation, I thought I might rename it Brassing Into the Earth. Because brassing isn’t a word, I decided to stick with my original title. But “brassing in” was a common phrase in the mining industry. Before heading down the shafts and into the stopes, the miners—poor laborers from Europe and Mexico—were given numbered brass tags. When their shift was completed, they would return their tags to the brassing in board, signifying that they had made it out of the ground for another day.

An anonymous author wrote in the January 1910 issue of Mines and Methods that “of professional men, probably there is no class more blind to the call of . . . humanity than most mining engineers.” According to historian Lynn Bailey, “the American mining industry was [also] marked by an appalling indifference to human life.” There was “a general callousness toward the value of human life” and “that value was often weighted according to nationality.” It comes as no surprise that accidents occurred almost daily within the Copper Queen and the Calumet & Arizona Mines.

A few months ago, in preparation for this exhibit, I took a tour of the Copper Queen Mine.  Our tour guide—an experienced Hispanic miner—explained how mules were also part of the underground culture within the mines. They worked in darkness until they went blind. The callous treatment toward these animals became, for me, an analogy of the callous treatment toward the immigrant laborers, both historically and today.

*Photos courtesy of Gregory Byard.