January 7, 2013 | by Nica Horvitz
Emily Bee of The Beehive Design Collective, takes a large white banner out from its cardboard shipping box, unfolds it, and spreads the cloth across a low row of honeysuckle bushes. The wind picks up, rippling through the banner’s tapestry of ink-shaded plants, animals, and industrial landscapes.
“This is a tool for shifting the story,” Emily says, taking a step back. Fluttering before us, the banner is the visual manifestation of The True Cost of Coal: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for our Future, a collaboration that began in 2008 between the Beehive Collective and Appalachian community organizers, activists and residents whose lives have been impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining. “Our job as activists,” she explains, “is not just to give facts, but to make the big, zoomed-out stories in our lives more visible—like the one that says it’s okay to displace Indigenous people and trash the planet in the name of “progress.” At the same time, the Collective offers folks another story to be in, full of life-affirming alternatives and tales of resiliency and resistance from the frontlines of social movements.
With over 100,000 pieces of anti-copyright graphic work distributed since their formation in 2000, the Beehive Collective produces hyper-intricate black and white drawings of plants and animals depicting colonial history, biodiversity, globalization, and contemporary social movements. Their graphics are reproduced on banners, posters, and cloth patches adorning backpacks and back pockets across the globe.
The Collective’s work is the result of in-depth research and story collecting carried out by the collective’s “swarm”: a small group of “backbone bees,” like Emily, rooted in Machias, Maine, in addition to many other “autonomous pollinators” who help animate Beehive’s work by bringing it to communities worldwide. Working as “word to image” translators, the Collective describes their work as “interactive, anti-copyright graphics for the commons,” an important foundation of their art and activism. “We shepherd stories, steward them, sculpt them, but they are not ours in a proprietary way—they are ours to share, not to own.”
Above all else, the Beehive’s artwork is intended to be used and passed on, helping the Collective fulfill its mission to “cross-pollinate the grassroots.” Once completed, the graphics exist under a Creative Commons license and are available for download from the Collective’s website, encouraging viral dissemination via hand-to-hand methods. Bursting out into the world like tumbleweeds, the graphics are continuously spread by new layers of participation, accumulating strength as stories weave back into the fabric of the frontline communities from which they originate.
“Most of the Beehive’s graphics tell the colonization story of the Americas, a story that starts with violence and the enclosure of the commons—when people were separated from their land, each other, their languages and religions, and their ability to produce wealth from the abundance around them—that original separation.” Emily’s hand hovers above the banner, zeroing in on numerous images that illustrate the parceling and privatization she describes. In Appalachia, that “original separation” violently transformed the region into a major US resource extraction colony, where, ever since, ecological health has been sacrificed in the name of cheap energy and corporate power.
“The logic of our economy,” she continues, “does not value the benefits we receive freely from the land and from each other unless these benefits (clean air, clean water, healthy topsoil, authentic culture) can be privatized for the profit of a few.”
Emily emphasizes that in Appalachia, a region historically subjugated to misrepresentation of many kinds, reclaiming the tradition and practice of storytelling is a crucial part of reclaiming the commons.” This poster is about Appalachia, but the patterns of trauma, displacement, resistance, and regeneration are everywhere. Sometimes they are acknowledged, other times the rifts are ancient and deep. We find that people are thirsty for accessible, non-academic tools to help them make sense of this moment we’re living through and see how everything connects. Telling stories helps us do that.”
While other Beehive projects focus on globalization stories from Latin America, The True Cost of Coal is the Bees’ first U.S.-based graphics campaign to draw connections between resource extraction and climate crisis. Telling the story of mountaintop removal, one of the most devastating forms of extraction, allowed for close collaboration with directly affected communities here in the global north.
The True Cost of Coal banner, a multi-directional historical timeline densely juxtaposed with illustrations of native Appalachian plants and animals, tells the region’s history through metaphorical scenes that strive to avoid cultural stereotypes. From left to right, narratives flow one into the next—stories of ancestors, colonization and industrialization, mountaintop removal and climate chaos, resistance, and finally, regeneration—a blue print of possibility for a liveable future rooted in the most grounded, grassroots strategies of the present.
Emily gestures toward the left side of the banner, where Indigenous communities represented by native Appalachian species are shown managing and sharing the natural commons that surround them. Scan right, however, and everything changes. A huge flock of invasive European starlings represent the region’s first throngs of colonists, carrying flags and cages with their beaks, descending to force native songbirds out of their nests. Soon even more threatening forces enter: fences are erected around plots of land, and the first railroad arrives knocking down everything in its path. As the eye moves even further right the chaos increases, culminating at the banner’s center where a menacing jumble of big box stores, prisons, corporate-controlled feudal towns, mega machinery, and trash collide in an explosive fight for space and resources. At this juncture, the region’s ecosystem has been transformed into a danger zone, a mono-economic mess.
However, the ingredients for making change are carefully harbored throughout these illustrations of degradation. “This is the much-needed Good News!” Emily explains, sweeping her hand to the far right of the banner, where narratives of resistance rise up from the ashes of catastrophe and collapse. Here the banner’s most heartening chapters unfold, telling and honoring stories of reclaiming, redistributing, and regenerating the commons.
Emily zeroes in on one of her favorite images, a raccoon breaking through a coal company fence to hunt and fish on privatized property, an act of defiance and civil disobedience. Below, representatives of Appalachia’s most endangered critters, (including the Cerulean Warbler, the Red Wolf, the Bee, and assorted mussel species), meet in the root system of a collapsed tree, forming a gathering and strategizing space from the ruin systemic pollution has left behind. More examples of triumph emerge: creatures working toward solidarity economics by turning home-grown food into value added products: folks sharing seeds, dismantling fences, and constructing energy efficient housing in the branches of trees; communities reconnecting to land-based wisdom and practices and gathering the skills to live and work cooperatively. Together they resist separation from the land and each other, championing “people power” over “coal power.”
(The scene to the left pays homage to radical resource centers like the Highlander Center, where community activists gather to examine root causes of their common struggles and to strategize.)
“Our posters are like giant love letters to social movements,” Emily says as she talks with her hands, pointing out instance upon instance of pocketed hope. “Corporate media will stop at nothing to make us feel small, marginal, isolated, crazy, and foolish when we defend ourselves and the commons. These posters strive to mirror back to frontline folks their courage, their creativity, their resilience, and their immense power.” At once dizzying and orderly, the fine lines and many gradations of the illustration reflect a breathing ecology: crumbling, regenerating, always on the brink. In all its fertile density, the banner embodies interconnectedness, reminding us that the story of Appalachia and mountaintop removal is also the story of the earth, at this moment, in this climate. It is the story of the commons—land, water, sky, communities, movements, traditions—routinely disregarded but fiercely resilient.
It is everybody’s story, the story we share. And in these fractured times, there is no greater story to tell.
Nica Horvitz works at Blue Mountain Center—an artist and activist residency program and organizational partner of On the Commons located in the Adirondack Mountains—where Emily Bee was a 2012 resident. Blue Mountain Center is committed to supporting commons work, and encourages commoners to apply for future residencies by visiting www.bluemountaincenter.org.
During their research for The True Cost of Coal, the Beehive Collective relied heavily on inspiration from groups like Appalshop, Appalachian Media Institute, and *Foxfire*—Appalachian organizations working to archive and reteach traditional practices, and to create new generations of storytellers.
To learn more about the commons reclamation work of the Beehive Collective in Machias, Maine, or to explore other graphics campaigns, please visit www.beehivecollective.org .