“A portable climate.” That’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson called coal. “Every basket is power and civilization,” he wrote in 1860. Coal is not only a portable climate but “it is the means of transporting itself whithersoever it is wanted,” Emerson added, noting “a half-ounce of coal will draw two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat, to make Canada as warm as Calcutta.”
Writing 100 years later, Thomas McGrath contrasts coal fire to wood fire in his poem “A Coal Fire in Winter.” With a coal fire, there is “[s]omething old and tyrannical burning there.” This is “heat / From the time before there was fire.” Coal, compressed plant matter accumulated over 100,000 years, is the legacy of a “sunken kingdom” and its flames are “carbon serpents of bituminous gardens.”
Coal—as fuel, as fossil, as material, as metaphor, as “black gold,” as historical force—is the starting point of Manifesta 9, situated in the main building of the former Waterschei mining facility in Genk, Belgium.