Why Speak about Extraction and Extractivism

Why am I thinking about extractivism and what am I hoping to understand through this process?

Part of what I would like to do is begin from a space of acknowledging that extractivist practices are inherent to most labour and creative processes, including my own, and to look that in its face. As a sound designer using field recordings–I may record the sound of an insect buzzing past me. The whizzing of its wings might become a synthesizer, made possible by a software that I was able to buy through work in capitalist labour, to install on a computer which I was able to purchase. The computer was built by many hands, its parts mined from the earth, a mine built through consent, through coercion, through force, through manipulation, colonization, negotiation? Mined by many hands entangled and intertwined with a global system of trade, automization, sub-contracting. In each site, a wider community of services, domestic labour, sex work, precarious economies generate and co-exist. Relationships of migration, power, choice, consent, entitlement, desire, ability, accessibility—all living and breathing through this highly complex entanglement we have with each other, not even knowing the face(s) of one another.

The insects do (not) consent. I engage in an act in which I do not even leave the possibility for their consent. If I were to “use” human actors I might consider their consent, their involvement, their collaboration or the employment of their labour. The fact that I have decided who can and cannot offer consent points again to invisibility, facelessness, entanglements that I willingly allow to be invisible.

The synthesizer becomes the melodic lead in a song. The song gets played on Spotify. Spotify Premium users pay quite a bit per month for a streaming service, and I may get just pennies per month for the streaming of my song. But do I get other things? Do I build a reputation as a musician, as an “Artist”? Will I receive funding from a body who will recognize me as “an Artist”? Will I give whatever funding I receive back to the insect, will there be enough for them to get a share? Is “giving back” the end goal, does “paying” help, and does it disrupt processes of extraction?

What is extraction? From the Cambridge Dictionary online, extraction is the process of taking out or removing something, especially by force. Extractivism, a term initially developed by Latin American scholars, situates these extractive processes in the global economy, whereby these processes of extraction interact with global capitalist economies and trade. Although the idea has been used by many scholars in thinking about environmental extractivism, its also been used in relation to other contexts such as the extraction of human surplus labour, and also expanded into territories as “new extractivism(s)” to speak about digital content, intellectual property and new or more abstract economies of emotional labour and care.

What is the “force” of extraction implemented when it comes to creative economies? Are we aware of the force, do we feel coerced? Perhaps the force has something to do with the precarious conditions in which many of us find ourselves, and the coercive nature of so-called artistic collaboration is already built into the relationships of power in the first place. If I agree to a 300 euro fee, am I agreeing to my surplus labour being extracted, or am I simply agreeing to this fee because I know the choice is between 300 euros or no work? Likewise if I offer someone a 300 euro fee, am I making them consider a similar offer. Does 300 pay for the rights to use my ideas, to use another’s ideas, and does it even make “sense” to think through the frame of quantification?

As an artist I am interested in contextualizing my work <for> others, <collaborating with> others and <employing> others inside the mess of ways in which we are and become entangled with each other through relations of extraction. Id also like to begin by saying, this writing is not the first of its kind nor the last; it follows and flows with many other thinkers who are doing the same. Moreover, whether or not we are actively articulating these relationships through the written word (which takes time and privileges the funded academic or funded artist), I believe that there are many processes in which artists are engaging with acts of upsetting, resisting, and disrupting extractive relationships, even as they exist in the art world.

I don’t intend this to be a heavily intellectual and inaccessible work. In fact I might rather say, this is just a blog post, and its just a place to think through some initial ideas. It also might be incredibly obvious that I am writing and thinking outside of an academic setting, I don’t feel that I have full access to the correct language of academia, therefore, the language of audibility in that setting. I may try to acquire it, to copy it, to learn from it, but still I feel that my tongue is missing a beat. That’s a way of saying, I’m going to have to write simply because I wont be able to fake it.

Why talk about extraction? Maybe I want to talk about extraction because I want to think of the ways in which we sometimes feel “exploited” or that something was “taken from us” and yet its difficult to put our fingers on the ways in which we feel this, why we may feel this way, and how to understand or resist the process through which this happened. When it comes to ideas–perhaps this feels especially murky, since so many ideas are flying at us all the time, it is genuinely difficult to follow who had an idea first. Sometimes, though diligent attribution might seem like the best course of action, we still have to ask ourselves–was it “correct” that such-and-such idea was attributed to a particular person? Did naming that person solidify his or her as unique artist? Is it more fair to simply attribute the “hive mind”? Especially when it comes to ideas, our current are (all) involved in process to which we consent in the immediate sense–for example, we agree to the terms of the labour–but if we were asked if we consent to the structure itself, we might not. And perhaps there I can start just to name some of the dynamics of extraction that I believe I intersect.

In what ways am I entangled?

25 July 2021

Kathryn Fischer aka Mad Kate