Cultural Landscapes of Energy: Constructing Histories in the Aftermath of Energy Production

Cultural Landscapes of Energy: Constructing Histories in the Aftermath of Energy Production

Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe GWZO and Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum, Leibniz Research Museum for Geo-resources, in cooperation with the Mining and Technology Park in Leipzig Neuseenland and with support from the research lab “Valorisation and Commodification” within the Leibniz Research Alliance “Value of the Past”
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
15.09.2022 - 16.09.2022
Philipp Kröger, Historisches Seminar, Universität Siegen

The Mining and Technology Park at the former “Espenhain” open-pit lignite mine on the outskirts of Leipzig provided the perfect setting for the international conference „Cultural Landscapes of Energy“. Surrounded by bucket-wheel excavators and spoil heaps, the participants discussed questions raised by the impact of energy production on the affected landscapes, the residing people and contested historical narratives in the wake of coal mining, oil extraction, and the construction of hydroelectric power plants. The conference brought together a variety of perspectives not limited to academic research, but also included those of artists, activists, and World Heritage initiatives.

In their opening address, GERALD RIEDEL (Leipzig) and MARTIN BAUMERT (Bochum) introduced the participants to the Mining and Technology Park and emphasised the remembrance of lignite mining as one of its main objectives. After TORSTEN MEYER’s (Bochum) remarks on the research lab “Valorisation and Commodification” and the Leibniz Research Alliance “Value of the Past”, CORINNE GEERING (Leipzig) outlined the thematic framework of the conference. Understanding energy as a key factor for regional development in the 20th century, the conference’s aim was to uncover the hidden histories of landscapes of energy production.

The first panel raised questions of how energy production in the 20th century changed landscapes and how this process affected practices of commemoration. SAREM SUNDERLAND (Zurich) presented parts of his dissertation project on hydropower in Switzerland. Whereas nowadays dams are seen as a destructive force, Sunderland emphasised their qualities in the construction of landscapes. Focusing on what he called “urbanised reservoirs” and in particular on his case study, Lake Sihl, Sunderland argued that ideas about the improvement of landscapes emerged at the turn of the 20th century drawing on a romantic tradition of landscape painting. ANDREW DEMSHUK’s (Washington, DC) presentation tied in with his recent research on the long-term development and effects of lignite mining in Leipzig. Demshuk analysed the practices of commemoration in two post-mining villages near Leipzig. The village of Eythra suffered devastation and resettlement in the 1980s and is now subject of a vibrant memory culture. In contrast, the remembrance of lignite mining faded in the village of Mölbis which was spared from destruction after German reunification. In his conclusion, however, Demshuk hypothesised that there is a general trend towards amnesia in post-industrial landscapes.

Opening the second panel, ISABELL SCHMOCK-WIECZOREK and VINCENT HABURAJ (Dresden) pleaded for the integration of an object-based method in historical research on post-mining landscapes. To this end, they presented results of a documentation project on the material witnesses of lignite mining in Saxony, in particular at Kulkwitz Lake on the outskirts of Leipzig. The project’s objective is to create an inventory of a wide variety of objects that enables researchers to gain new insights into the formation of landscapes and social dynamics in post-mining regions. Many of the objects, they argued, reveal their relation to coal mining only through their contextualisation. LEA BRÖNNER and HEIDI PINKEPANK (Cottbus-Senftenberg) addressed the process of heritagisation and the World Heritage initiative in the Lusatia mining region. In anticipation of the end of coal excavation in the world’s largest coherent lignite mining area in 2038, the challenging task is to invent an inner vision of the landscape that serves as an identity marker. In this process, conflicting narratives of destruction and loss on the one hand and technical achievements such as mining and land reclamation on the other must be reconciled. While this process can obviously be guided, Brönner and Pinkepank pointed out that heritagisation, even in post-industrial landscapes, does not mean to construct heritage, but creating awareness for already existing heritage.

The third panel focused on the emergence of historical narratives in regions of energy production. Leaving Saxonian lignite mining behind, LEYLA SAYFUTDINOVA (St Andrews) drew the participants’ attention to oil extraction in Baku, Azerbaijan. Sayfutdinova presented parts of a larger research project analysing how oil production created a symbolic nexus of fire and oil, which shapes national imaginaries in Baku’s urban landscape. Against the theoretical backdrop of vertical territory and resource nationalism, Sayfutdinova provided a critical assessment of the intersection of oil extraction and nationalism in Azerbaijan, known and commodified as the “The Land of Fire”. MERVE NEZIROĞLU (Leipzig) presented findings of her field trip to the Iron Gates gorge on the Danube river in Romania, where two hydroelectric dams and power plants had been built in 1972. Asking how narratives emerged from this landscape transformation Neziroğlu analysed three museums in the Orșova region. In the case of the famous island Ada Kaleh, which was submerged in the 1970s, Neziroğlu pointed out that the island is remembered as a lost paradise while resettlements remain hidden in such narratives. In her final remarks Neziroğlu referred to recent plans for a third power plant, concluding that landscape transformation due to energy production in the region might not have come to an end yet. Resettlements and landscape transformation were also one of the focal points of JENNY HAGEMANN’s (Cottbus) paper she had prepared with her colleagues at the Sorbian Institute. Returning to the Lusatian post-mining landscape, Hagemann addressed the difficulties of Sorbian identity in the context of the recent World Heritage initiative. Due to the overlap of Sorbian settlement areas and lignite deposits, mining did not only have an impact on the affected landscapes but on Sorbs and Sorbian culture as well. However, imaginaries of the Lusatian post-industrial landscape are mainly characterised by miners and mining. The challenge Hagemann identified is to include the intangible and immaterial Sorbian culture in the World Heritage initiative.

The fourth panel addressed the material traces of energy production in the affected landscapes, raised questions of their ephemerality and how to deal with them. The presentation of RUNE FRANDSEN (Zurich), based on his dissertation project, shed new light on the history of hydropower in Switzerland. Using what he called “secondary infrastructure” as an analytic tool, Frandsen’s research on the Grand Dixence complex in the canton of Valais does not focus on the construction of the dam itself, but on the accompanying structures such as worker’s quarters and roads. While the latter can be referred to as hard infrastructure, the housings and the workers were temporary and reversible elements that left only minor traces in the landscape. Frandsen argued that, on the one hand, these traces of the secondary infrastructure can be found even after practices of so-called renaturation. On the other hand, renaturation practises can be criticised not only for restoring an imaginary and obviously not fully recoverable nature, but also as a way of silencing the past. AGNES TATZBER (Vienna) presented a more artistic approach to the remains of energy production. Her research on oil extraction in the Austrian village of Neusiedl an der Zaya formed the basis of an art performance and installation. Tatzber focused on recreational spaces built by the oil company in Neusiedl. Understanding these as extended oil spaces, Tatzber used parts of a former swimming pool for her art project in order to make the manifold traces of oil production in our lives visible. The traces and leftovers of oil production also play a major role in the research of SAARA MILDEBERG (Tallinn). She presented results of her field work in the Ida-Viru region in north-eastern Estonia. Until the 1990s and the beginning of post-Soviet industrial restructuring, oil shale extraction was one of the region’s main economic driving forces. The region was recently branded as “Adventure Land”, a tourism concept that Mildeberg criticised for not taking into account the industrial past of Ida-Viru. Sites of industrial heritage, she argued, were turned into sites of adventure tourism, silencing the histories of the former inhabitants. Mildeberg therefore pleaded for a stronger consideration of industrial heritage in tourism concepts in the former landscapes of energy production.

The fifth panel addressed the political dimensions of industrial heritage and the processes of renaturation and restoration in the aftermath of energy production. CAROLIN MAERTENS (Munich) presented her research on Bitterfeld, a town in the former GDR. Popularised in the 1980s by books such as Monika Maron’s “Flight of Ashes”, Bitterfeld became known as the dirtiest place on earth. Maertens argued that while the sites of ecological catastrophe are nowadays transformed into a nature idyll, people’s livelihoods and the processing of the past have not sufficiently been considered in the process of restoration, which, according to her critique, is mainly understood as an exclusively technical solution to problems bearing a social dimension as well. Turning to Poland, a rather similar process can be observed. HUBERT TUBACKI (Poznań) presented a paper based on the joint work of international researchers. Brzeszcze, at the margins of Poland’s carbonscape and thus a non-Silesian mining town, lacks sufficient financial support as it is cut off from the resources deployed for the process of de-industrialisation in Silesia. Drawing on what Tubacki called “engaged ethnography” and ethnographic interviews, the researchers were able to show that plans made on the drawing board by out-of-town experts failed to consider the needs of the local population. An anthropological perspective, Tubacki concluded, helps to negotiate the process of just transformation in post-mining areas. GERTJAN PLETS (Utrecht) addressed the politics of industrial heritage in the Netherlands. In an ongoing research project, he and his colleagues reveal how energy corporations use heritagisation to shape historical narratives and create legitimacy. Focusing on the well-known case of Royan Dutch Shell and the Groningen gas field, two problems became clear. First, the often neglected role of Shell as a major player in the field of heritagisation compared to government and civil society actors. Second, the immateriality of gas, which leaves only minor traces after extraction ends. Thus, the environmental damage caused by gas extraction in the Netherlands is not visible in the heritage initiatives funded by Shell, nor in the landscapes of energy production. Therefore, Plets pleaded for a bottom up and inclusive approach to industrial heritage drawing on oral history and a digital alternative historical repository (

In her final commentary, JULIANE TOMANN (Regensburg) addressed three important points. First, the intersection of academic research and the field of practice when dealing with the history of energy landscapes. Tomann identified this challenge as putting knowledge into practice. Second, she pointed out the different definitions of theoretical concepts such as heritage and landscape. Here, further conceptual work seems to be necessary. Third, Tomann raised the question of generationality and conflict in transformation processes of post-industrial landscapes. When focusing on renaturation, tourism and World Heritage initiatives, stories of loss due to resettlement, for example, run the risk of being silenced.

In summary, by uncovering the hidden histories of landscapes of energy production, the conference issued an important and pressing field for both academic research and practice, as Tomann put it. However, with the focus on social dynamics and the emergence of conflicting historical narratives in the landscapes of energy production, which indeed are important topics, the changing conceptions of nature in the 20th century were only briefly touched upon. Considering energy production and consumption as one of the main driving forces of changing society-nature relations, landscape transformation can be understood and analysed as one of their central manifestations. The latter, however, shows that the conference did not only contribute to a vibrant and fresh field1, but also indicated a demand for further research. Here, the heterogenous disciplinary background of the participants proved to be very fruitful and promises to excavate further results in the complex histories of landscapes of energy production.

Conference Overview

Opening address
Gerald Riedel and Martin Baumert, Mining and Technology Park in Leipzig Neuseenland
Torsten Meyer, Research Lab “Valorisation and Commodification”
Corinne Geering, Research Lab “Valorisation and Commodification”

Panel I: Creating Landscapes I
Chair: Torsten Meyer (Leipzig)

Sarem Sunderland (Zurich): The Imagination of a Reservoir: Social-Economic Constructions of Lake Sihl (1897–1937)

Andrew Demshuk (Washington, DC): Undermining Heimat in Leipzig’s Coalfields: Pollution, Prophecy, Demolition, and Memory before and after 1989

Panel II: Creating Landscapes II
Chair: Martin Baumert (Bochum)

Isabell Schmock-Wieczorek and Vincent Haburaj (Dresden): How Objects Define Places and Histories: Methodological Approaches for Object-Based Research in the Industrial Landscape of Kulkwitz, Saxony (Germany)

Lea Brönner, Markus Otto and Heidi Pinkepank (Cottbus-Senftenberg): Identity, Power of Disposal and Heritagisation in the Lusatian Post-Open Cast Mining Landscape

Panel III: Representing the Past
Chair: Kaja Schelker (Leipzig)

Leyla Sayfutdinova (St Andrews): Fire in the Land of Oil: Symbolism of Fire, Oil, and Nation in Baku Urbanscape

Merve Neziroğlu (Leipzig): 50 Years of Hydropower: A Field Trip to the Iron Gates in Romania

Jenny Hagemann, Fabian Jacobs and Lutz Laschewski (Bautzen/Cottbus): Contested Regional Identities: Including Minority Rights in the Creation and Historisation of Post-Mining Landscapes

Panel IV: Living with the Landscape
Chair: Sabine Stach (Leipzig)

Rune Frandsen (Zurich): Secondary Infrastructure Exposed: The Temporary Settlements of La Grande Dixence (1950-1962)

Agnes Tatzber (Vienna): Post Petrol Present: The Emergence and Decline of the Petroculture-Dependent Spaces in Neusiedl an der Zaya

Saara Mildeberg (Tallinn): Cultural Tourism in a Post-Industrial Adventure Land

Panel V: Energy Leftovers
Chair: Corinne Geering (Leipzig)

Carolin Maertens (Munich): Living in Cultural Landscapes of Contamination. Persistent Toxicity and Reconciliation in East Germany

Hubert Tubacki, Aleksandra Lis, Kosma Lechowicz, Łukasz Afeltowicz, Jacek Gądecki and Joanna Suchomska (Poznań/Uppsala/Kraków/Toruń): Just Transition at the Margins of a Carbonscape: The Case of a non-Silesian Mining Town Brzeszcze

Gertjan Plets and Pim Huijnen (Utrecht): The Contested Hydrocarbon Landscapes of the Netherlands: Challenges and Opportunities for Remembering the Anthropocene

Commentary and Concluding Discussion
Chair: Torsten Meyer (Bochum)
Commentary: Juliane Tomann (Regensburg)

1 See for instance the special issue on energy landscapes of Environment, Space, Place 10, no. 1 (2018).

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