Acts of God: The Poplar Tree Struck the Sago Mine
virtual reality installation, geospatial mine data, 3D scan of ants, Unreal Engine, 2018

In 2006, thirteen men suffocated in darkness two miles deep in the Anker West Virginia Mining company’s Sago Mine when a sudden explosion occurred, choking all exits from their gravesite. Mining disasters are so ubiquitous to the exploited working-class of mineral-rich geographical locations, that a whole genre of music - disaster ballads - emerged globally. This story of miners leaving for work and never coming home has become a trope in Appalachia part of the fabric of Appalachian orality since the 1870s with John Wallace Crawford’s 1877 poem Only a Miner Killed. In the years following, Appalachian music traditions would adopt the lyrical-memorial forms into songs such as Coal Tattoo by Billy Edd Wheeler, and later updated with feminist perspectives thanks to Jean Ritchie’s West Virginia Mine Disaster written after the Hominy Falls mine disaster, or Hazel Dickens’s The Mannington Mine Disaster.
Williams-Roby also uses Jean Ritchie’s West Virginia Mine Disaster as audio material in the virtual reality rendering of the Sago Mine Disaster allegory in the experience titled When the Poplar Tree Struck the Sago Mine. He thinks of the piece as a much-needed audiovisual disaster ballad, bringing digital literacy to the format.
As Williams-Roby researched the Sago Mine Disaster, he discovered the blurring between fact and fiction within the Mine Safety Health Administration, turning the blame from poor safety regulations to “an act of god,” a poplar tree that had been struck by lightning, causing the disaster—clearly a work of fiction masquerading as fact. The viewer, as the player, is confronted by the facts and fictions of this incident, but not just this incident, the history of incidents, repeated time and again in the state, region, nation, and world.
Williams-Roby connects the storytelling oral traditions of Appalachian songs, cryptids, and ghost stories with the digital storytelling medium of video games. In this synthesis, Williams-Roby also realizes the connection between the labor of his father and other coalminers that provided the electricity necessary to power these interactive electric fantasies by mining the coal only miles from his home. We are, as a digital-media culture, powered electronically by Appalachian labor. The market of video games is often global in scope, localized to produce a relatable experience from region to region. In the experience Williams produces, one encounters LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scans of West Virginia mines and hollers extracted from Google’s servers using the OpenGL script. Worker ants with mining helmets following the day to day rituals of labor, as ants equate to human miners in a Marxist nightmare. These worlds are fatalistic, and they are extractions of the disasters of Appalachia.
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