At the coalface! Design in a post-carbon age

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40 years after Grand-Hornu Images was founded as a center for innovation and design, and ten years after its inclusion on the Unesco list, Au Charbon! is Le Grand-Hornu’s very first exhibition on coal, a fuel source that brought about irreversible change during the Industrial Revolution.

A living archive of the region's mining economy, the Grand-Hornu site is an urban project, a unique example in Europe of functional town planning, built around the presence of coal in the ground. Its mining history has forged an economic, cultural and political legacy across several generations of people who have lived in the area or come from afar, among them former miners and newcomers, migrants and descendants.

Coal remains the world's second largest energy source after oil and its primary source of electricity. Its combustion is responsible for much of the world's CO2 emissions. A carbon-rich combustible sedimentary rock formed by the partial degradation of vegetation, coal is the source material here for a symbolic overview of design: from its industrial origins to the transition to post-carbon energy sources.

A shape-shifting element, it is an overexploited natural resource that poses countless problems, some of which will be dealt with in the projects we present. In them, designers, architects and visual artists make use of coal to create scenarios that speak of worker migration, artefacts in which coal becomes a precious material, expressions that generate a sense empathy with the toil of mining work, tools that recreate the formation of coal, items triggering new rituals, and materials obtained from alternative mining futures.

The pieces we have brought together provide both a damning insight and reasons for hope: design as a means of deconstructing the humankind/nature hierarchies of the modern era, putting us back into the humus, as a part of nature itself.

Au Charbon! is a conversation that spans many disciplines, combining memories and techniques of the past with the need for solutions to the emergency we face today. It sees coal become a resource for generating multi-voiced and sustainable narratives.

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