Linking the Opioid Crisis to Coal Fields and Capitalism: an Interview with Gina Mamone and John Ryan Brubaker

Photo Courtesy of John Ryan Brubacker

Photo Courtesy of John Ryan Brubacker

“I want a survivor for Governor.” The opening sentence of West Virginia artist and activist Gina Mamone’s #whichsideareyouon audio installation reverberated throughout the second floor of the Hirshhorn Museum, just feet away from the beginning and end of the (separate) group exhibition, Manifesto: Art X Agency. Four speakers stood as pillars, encircling a pedestal with a bowl filled to the brim with slate grey gel capsules crafted by John Ryan Brubaker, also from West Virginia. Every sentence of Mamone’s manifesto—inspired by Zoe Leonard’s poem “I Want a President” (1992)—ricocheted from speaker to speaker while the capsules, filled with crushed coal, remained rooted to the spot, daring visitors to touch them while exuding an air of dangerous toxicity. Standing there, reading along with Mamone’s text and hearing their voice weave a story of the defiant injustice that had been done to their home and the people they love, felt equal parts exhilarating and sickening. Exhilarating to hear them take a stand against the Sackler family, to say ‘Enough is enough’ to lawmakers about the opioid crisis, to fight to be heard. Sickening that our country ignores the severity of the systemic issues manifested in Appalachia; sickening that doctors, who had been tasked with the simple job of healing the hurt, instead succumbed to the temptation of riches promised by Big Pharma; sickening that millions have died, while few have made millions. All of this, encapsulated in the gel capsules at the center of the web. Chills crept up my spine, impervious to the heatwave outside the museum’s walls. 

Curated by Jocelyn Frank, the exhibition of #whichsideareyouon / Sackler Treatment by Mamone and Brubaker was one part of the Hirshhorn’s Sound Scene XII: AMPLIFY. The annual weekend event centers around sound artists and their work, highlighting new and subversive audio work. This year, from June 29-30th, Sound Scene featured workshops, performances, audio installations, and screenings, all with the express intent to display “invisible forces, previously silenced voices, and unexpected music.”

Gina Mamone’s  #whichsideareyouon

Gina Mamone’s #whichsideareyouon

Photo Courtesy of John Ryan Brubacker

Photo Courtesy of John Ryan Brubacker

Mamone and Brubaker do not typically experiment with the medium of audio installations. Mamone is best know for their work as the co-founder and moderator of Queer Appalachia, a multi-platform social media account that celebrates “queer voices and identities from Appalachia and the South.” Their work, specifically #whichsideareyouon, has been exhibited at galleries from Louisville to Richmond. 

Brubaker, on the other hand, primarily works in photography but has begun experimenting with crushed coal sourced from the seam that runs along the river in his town, Thomas, WV. Whether he’s mixing the coal into oil paint to create textured, monochromatic black canvases reminiscent of a goth Yves Klein, or filling gelatin capsules with the substance, Brubaker expands the mineral, stretching it across as many platforms as he can. 

West Virginia, which has been called the “ground zero of the opioid epidemic,” receives nothing short of sensationalist media attention about the sheer number of deaths per capita from opioid use. In reality, the history of the opioid crisis in the state can be traced back to a complex, intersectional history of classism and prejudice, partially informed by the collapse of the coal industry. 

Two weeks after seeing the exhibition in person, I sat down with both artists to discuss their respective work and how it addresses the current opioid crisis in West Virginia, Appalachia, and the nation at large.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Noelani Kirschner: To begin, why don’t you both tell me about the conception of this exhibition and how you two decided to collaborate?

Gina Mamone: We met at the very end of 2018. I had come up to Thomas, West Virginia, and got the opportunity to hang out in Gradient Space [a non-profit gallery run by John Ryan Brubaker]. We sat on the floor for a couple of hours, just talking. I learned about the history of coal in Thomas—when the coal seams came in and out. We also talked about the art that I was doing about the opioid epidemic.

I live in the coal fields [in the southern part of the state] but to see Thomas—to see this town that artists have brought back to life with a broad, generous, giving concept of community—gave me hope for ways in which the place that I live could come back.

John Ryan Brubaker: I had asked around to see if anybody knew who was running the Queer Appalachia project. I knew about it via Instagram but it also spans multiple platforms. I saw someone doing smart, aggressive, funny, and deeply complicated work all at the same time. I had a friend who said, ‘Yes I know them; they’re in town. Would you like to meet?’ I’ve been creatively dealing with coal in different ways but didn’t understand the connection between coal and opioids. Mamone taught me about the southern part of the state and how linked these things are—socioeconomically, physically, culturally, and medically.

NK: What did you learn about the connection between coal and the opioid crisis?

JRB: I knew that opioids were a severe issue in Appalachia but I didn’t realize how linked they were to the coal industry, specifically the coal fields in the south. I kind of want to let Mamone fill that question in, just because they’re more informed than I am.

GM: You’re doing a great job! When you see the explosion of opioids in any type of geographic area, you’re going to see it pool in working-class economies that depend on manual labor. Saturday is my birthday—I’m 43 years old. One thing I’ve learned in my life is that my mobility has changed. When you have a job that depends on backbreaking manual labor, you’re going to have more and more injuries as you get older. If you don’t have insurance, if you have awful insurance, or if you have an awful job that won’t give you time off to go to PT to heal correctly, you see a lot of poor people with injuries just trying to keep the lights on.

We live in a capitalist society where you need to buy food and you have to take care of yourself. In doing this project and working within the sphere of opioid-everything the past few years in Appalachia, I’ve never met anyone who wanted to throw their life away. I’ve just met people who were poor and hurt and didn’t have other opportunities than to have a horrible, demeaning job that was based on their labor. They were just trying to participate in the American dream.

[Opioids are] a gateway drug and the prescription regulations changed since the 1980s. We know that the Sackler family worked with the government and the FDA to change the prescription regulations and guidelines around opioids. And it goes from a thing that you can have for no more than a few days after an operation to something that you can have whenever you want for as long as you want. And we see addiction change rapidly from that.

JRB: We talked about Sackler when we met back in December but a huge amount has happened since we formed this collaboration—we had no idea what was going to happen between deciding to do this exhibition and actually putting it in a museum. It actually became part of the cultural conversation in a completely different way.

NK: From that initial conversation to the exhibition at the Hirshhorn, how did the work evolve? Did you come out with this original idea of the format or did it change over the six months of planning?

JRB: I would say that it was in multiple stages. Not long after this conversation, I saw Mamone’s work, #whichsideareyouon, which is a manifesto based on the famous Zoe Leonard piece but they updated it to be about Appalachia. I asked Mamone if we could project it on the back wall of Gradient Space. We put it up in January and ran it for three months in the back room of the gallery.

While that was going on, I made a tray of pills from crushed coal. I had a vision that I wanted to show coal and pills, but I wasn’t sure how it all fit together. A curator, Jocelyn Frank, came through town and we started talking about these pills that I had made. I told her to go see Mamone’s piece down the street. She came back to me and proposed a collaboration for a festival called Sound Scene at the Hirshhorn.

NK: What was the idea behind the exhibition design? Mamone, you turned your work into an audio installation.

GM: That was to fit in with the show—being around audio and finding a place for it.

JRB: The beginning was to make a sound installation out of words. I have to say, I find it really powerful in its spoken audio form. Mamone is the one reading the piece and their voice moves from speaker to speaker, so if you stand in the middle of the piece, you hear the text coming from all directions. It complements the text because it’s about an interconnected cultural phenomenon—it’s not just about opioids, it’s not just about class, it’s not just about coal, it’s not just about extraction in Appalachia. It’s all of these things coming together in one complicated scenario.

NK: Mamone, speaking to that, how were you thinking about the Zoe Leonard manifesto? Obviously, you’ve turned it into something completely your own, so what were you thinking about in terms of addressing all of these different issues?

GM: The first time I encountered Leonard’s piece, it made me think of Appalachia and West Virginia. You get to the end of it, and she ties it up with this great bow about these people who are supposed to have our best interests at heart but how it’s the opposite. That’s so the political landscape in Appalachia and why it is the way it is. I imagined it specifically about West Virginia and Appalachia. Being able to pair the piece with John Ryan’s piece, I feel like they complement and complete one another.

NK: What were the synergistic ideas that you both were playing with? Or, how do you see the two works completing the other’s thought?

JRB: In the pill portion of the work, it is visually simple. If it’s given a full explanation, it becomes more complete. To have it surrounded in the audio and to give it context—instead of having people read a set of statistics or whatever scientific paper about opioids in coal country—Mamone’s text brings the work into context better than any other factual statement could.

NK: What sorts of things were evoked when you were constructing the pills?

JRB: I had an evening here in Thomas where I invited folks to come help make the pills. There are some 6,500 in the installation and I couldn’t do it all myself. We lined up long tables, everyone had bowls of crushed coal, and people started naming folks that they had lost to opioids, like naming the pills individually. It became deeply emotional.

Photo Courtesy of John Ryan Brubacker

Photo Courtesy of John Ryan Brubacker

NK: Mamone, how did you find the written word completes the visual aspect of John Ryan’s piece?

GM: Adding the gel caps gives a no-holds bar snapshot of reality of what healthcare is like here. If you can’t afford anything but free clinics or the Health Wagon or the Mission of Mercy—I mean, like the healthcare that we have, even if you pay for healthcare, this is what’s available in terms of pain management. When you have a society and a culture that is blue collar, you have to ask: what is healthcare? What are our options?

Adding those pills just puts a huge emphasis on the fact that people don’t have a choice but to poison themselves or become homeless. It only takes 3-5 days before your neurochemistry changes and you’re addicted. Your brain is literally rewired. John Ryan’s piece adds this big giant medical exclamation point at the end of what I’m saying in the manifesto—that healthcare makes you sick here.

One of my favorite things about the capsules was how the community made them. Our culture—our Appalachian culture—is about strong, stoic people doing what they need to do. That’s how everything is sold here. To come together and talk about it was so healing.

JRB: And we did—there were a lot of conversations that night about how people were affected. Everyone was affected in one form or another.

GM: It’s statistically impossible not to have been. In the past decade, there have been 79 billion opioids pumped into West Virginia.

NK: 79 billion?

GM: Yes.

NK: That is unfathomable. I don’t even know what that looks like numerically.

GM: Yeah. John, you can’t do that. Or maybe you could make that many!

JRB: No, I don’t think I could.

NK: I love the idea of the community coming together to hand-make this political statement. And then having this powerful punch basically on the National Mall, steps away from Capitol Hill.

JRB: Just steps away from the Sackler Gallery.

NK: Exactly! What in your mind is the broader significance of displaying this work in the heart of the nation’s capital?

JRB: It felt good to see work by Appalachian artists in Washington, DC. You don’t see it very often.

GM: I feel the same way. What is Appalachian contemporary art? A lot of people think it’s a joke, that sentence. We don’t see it that much. We’re known for our primitives; we’re known for our handmade things. But it ends and begins there.

To have a conversation about how certain populations benefit financially from the opioid crisis, so close to where many decisions are made about not just our life but our quality of life. I think it’s important to voice what we think about that and to have Appalachian artists working on the level of the Hirshhorn. 

NK: Going back to the Zoe Leonard piece, it was originally created in the ‘90s in response to the rise of conservatism that came on the heels of the AIDS crisis at the end of the ‘80s and the start of third wave feminism. That rise of conservatism and right wing radio resonates with our moment today. Mamone, what kind of political parallels do you see between your piece and the Leonard piece in terms of our current context?

GM: Now, there’s a rise of conservative propaganda. When you look at Charlottesville and the proud boys and the Klan—all of the organizations that are doing any kind of organizing, it’s all happening below the Mason Dixon. Living in the coal fields of Appalachia, being trans and gender non-conforming and having the presentation that I have, it definitely feels scarier to be me, here now, than three or four years ago on the heels of Obama leaving.

My piece was visually based on Leonard’s to look identical. I talk about how I want a governor who has shared a wall with someone who is dying from black lung because I have—my dad went into the mines when he wasn’t even a teenager yet, you know?

NK: To the extent that it could, what do you hope your piece could inspire politically, in terms of change?

GM: I work in hashtags because that’s a part of the internet medium. I use #opioidreparations, and I do feel that opioid reparations would be a game changer for our region. In terms of treatment and resources and people starting to invest in the communities that they literally made money off of people’s lives being taken away from them….

I would love to see some legislative anything in that direction. We’re desperate for resources, in terms of mental health support and recovery. When I detoxed from opioids, going to a program wasn’t an option for me. Even going and having a withdrawal that was observed in a hospital setting wasn’t an option. I went through all of that by myself in a room over a garage. We’re desperate for any resources and we’re desperate for understanding. Everyone can present that they’re radical in their politics. But the more I work in opioids, the more I find that radical inclusivity falls away.

NK: John Ryan, how about you? How do you hope that your work can inspire change?

JRB: Well, starting here in my immediate community, my next plan is to schedule evenings to make more pills in order to bring more people around the same tables. I’m thinking less of legislative overall change and more in terms of building our immediate ability to talk and hug each other over these things and tell our stories and feel heard. As that happens with ten people at a table, that expands outwardly somewhere.

And maybe every time I display this plate of pills out in the world, they can have another conversation about that. To me, that seems like the most powerful place to start: human interactions.

JRB and GM, photo by Mamone.jpg