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The Miner and the Neon Fish:
Decolonizing Alpine Ecologies



Text & Graphics by
Rony Emmenegger and Stephan Hochleithner, (published with the kind permission of Swiss Academy for Social Sciences, SAGW)
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14.11.2021

Next to a serpentine road, halfway up to Grimsel pass when approaching from the North, stands the miner (Der Mineur), silently splitting rock with his pneumatic hammer. The statue was erected to honor the construction workers of the hydropower stations Oberhasli, whose work has been shaping an Alpine landscape since the early twentieth century.

At the top of Grimsel, catchment lakes, water dams, power stations, and power poles morph into a hydroelectric infrastructure, producing energy and carrying it down towards the lowland valleys. Honoring the work of those who brought that infrastructure into being appears indeed justified in light of their sacrifices on the altar of a capitalist mode of production. Throughout the last century, construction work at almost 2000 meters altitude has been particularly challenging for both humans and machines – a challenge «mastered» through a continuous advance of engineering and technology with success increasing over time.


The sole focus on human achievements, however, obscures the ecological costs and consequences that the extraction of hydropower involves, especially for fish, aquatic organisms, rivers, but also Alpine ecologies more broadly. With our graphic installation – the miner and the neon fish – we aim at problematizing a human-centric historiography of progress that obscures the ecological consequences of hydropower production.


We do so by evocatively placing a neon fish under the miner’s pneumatic hammer. It serves as a visual metaphor for the electro-optical connection between humans and the fish, and the latter’s electrostatic discharge in contact with the miner and his machine. And yet, the relation between humans and their environments is not that clear-cut when it comes to commemoration, as we will elaborate in the following.


The use of hydropower, as a renewable energy source, has a long tradition in Switzerland. In the Grimsel region, the development of hydropower infrastructure intensified at large scale with a first mega dam project in 1925 – the Spitallamm dam. Construction work went on from 1925 to 1932 and resulted in the 114-meter-high dam – the world’s largest at the time. Since then, hydropower infrastructure has been gradually extended. Today, it connects 13 hydropower plants and eight storage lakes, producing between 2100 and 2300 gigawatt hours of electric energy annually.1 A further extension is currently in progress with the construction of a new dam replacing the existing Sptiallamm dam – because it cracked.

The finalization of this new dam is scheduled for 2025 and it will then not only secure, but further increase the capacity of the hydroelectric infrastructure – in line with Switzerland’s Energy Strategy 2050 and the envisioned transition towards renewable energy sources after the nuclear phase-out.


Currently, an exhibition at the UNESCO/KWO Visitors Center2 close to the dam provides visual and acoustic insights into the construction works back in the late 1920s and those ongoing at the new dam today.3 The exhibition includes an outline of the ongoing dam replacement project, compiles a series of engineering schemes, and posts statements of workers involved in the ongoing construction.

These exhibition elements are placed in a broader historical context of construction work at the site: a number of selected historical photographs and a short 5-minutes video provide lively insights into the construction work back in the late 1920s. They show laborers at work and demonstrate the logistical network of technology and expertise that coordinated their doing. The exhibition can thus be read as an extension of the miner: it is constituted as a site for the glorification of a human history of progress that made the development of the hydroelectric infrastructure possible.

However, the ongoing energy transition and the according «boom» (Zarfl et al. 2015) of hydropower raises questions about the potential ecological consequences of engineering, technology, and infrastructural extension (see also Ansar et al. 2014). The power plant operator in the Grimsel region highlights the «connectivity between humans, technology and nature»4, acknowledges the potential «tensions between electricity production and water protection»5 and calls for a responsible engagement with nature in its ongoing and planned projects. And yet, recent plans for the further extension of the hydroelectric infrastructure have still provoked controversies, with various associations still highlighting the negative ecological consequences of these plans.6

So, who might best speak for fish and aquatic microorganisms in ongoing and planned construction projects? By placing the dying neon fish under the miner’s pneumatic hammer, we aim at problematizing the ecological costs, which infrastructural extension and energy production have been generating for almost a century.

We do so by moving beyond a narrow focus on humans and by bringing into consideration an Alpine ecology as a «socialnature» (Braun & Castree 2001), which the extension of hydroelectric infrastructure has profoundly reassembled and turned into a «commodity frontier» (Moore 2000). Such a perspective reveals the extension of hydroelectric infrastructure as an integral part of capitalist expansion into an Alpine frontier, through which «nature» has been «tamed» and «commodified».


The figure of the miner plays a key role in this colonializing process, as his stone-bare masculine appearance embodies the very believe of human, patriarchal control over nature, glorifying man/kind’s appropriation of water for energy production and legitimizing the future extension of the hydroelectric infrastructure. As such, it sets a metaphysical zero point for a human history of progress, through which the building and extension of hydroelectric infrastructure has been normalized.

To disfigure the statue of the miner – by putting the neon fish under his hammer – appears justified and fruitful in light of the endeavor to decolonize Alpine ecologies from human domination. And yet, decolonizing ecologies along these lines must not distract from the laborers’ themselves, who had to invest whole parts of their lives into these construction works. In other words, calling for environmental justice must not come at costs of those who have themselves been instrumentalized within that very same narratives and processes of progress and capitalist production.

However, the statue of the steeled male miner can hardly account for the workers’ bodies and lives: It rather does, in its humble working-class pose, facing down to focus on its work with the drill, embody the hierarchy of class relations. Despite or maybe because the miner embodies these ambiguities, it appears worthwhile to maintain its presence for having a debate. In our installation, we aim at doing so by keeping the fish unlit during the day and thus hardly visible to passers-by, to allow the statue of the miner to remind of the workers. Only by night will the fish then appear in neon light and turn into a dazzling reminder of the colonization of nature – and also of the multitude of meanings which the monument entangles.  


The Graphic Installation The Miner and the Neon Fish by Rony Emmenegger and Stephan Hochleithner has been successfully awarded by the Swiss Academy for Social Sciences (SAGW) in 2021. The initial idea for this project emerged during fieldwork in the Upper Valais. Learn more about the project:

Tour décolonial 2022: opening event on January 31, 2022

Resources
Ansar, A., Flyvbjerg, B., Budzier, A., & Lunn, D. (2014): Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development. Energy Policy, 69, 43-56.

Braun, B., & Castree, N. (2001): Social nature: Theory, practice, politics. Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Moore, J. W. (2000). Sugar and the expansion of the early modern world-economy: Commodity frontiers, ecological transformation, and industrialization. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 409-433.

Zarfl, C., Lumsdon, A. E., Berlekamp, J., Tydecks, L., & Tockner, K. (2015): A global boom in hydropower dam construction. Aquatic Sciences, 77(1), 161-170.

Footnotes
1 Kraftwerke Oberhasli (KWO): Grimselstrom. (https://www.grimselstrom.ch/ueber-kwo/kwo-grimselstrom/, access: October 1, 2021).

2 20% of the Grimsel catchment area is located in the UNESCO World Heritage Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch.

3 UNESCO/KWO Visitors Center (2021): Exhibition to the visitor center at Grimsel Hospiz.

4 UNESCO/KWO Visitors Center (2021): Exhibition to the visitor center at Grimsel Hospiz.

5 Kraftwerke Oberhasli (KWO): Office for Ecology. (https://www.grimselstrom.ch/engagement/nachhaltige-entwicklung/gewaesserschutz/, access: October 1, 2021).

6 Helmut Stalder (2020, June 6): Staumauer-Erhöhung am Grimsel wird zu Prüfstein für Energiewende. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung.



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