Metals are the inner skeleton or infrastructure of human societies and technologies. Modern societies are profoundly metallic natures-cultures, and even our bodies are “walking, talking minerals” (Margulis & Sagan, in Bennett, 2010: 11). Human bodies are wired, internally and externally, technologically and physiologically, with ‘metallic lives’ (Bennett, 2010: 52-61), yet the dynamics of these intimate dependencies are comprehensively black-boxed, offshored, outsourced.
Computers and mobile phones are made of hundreds of chemical compounds, comprising dozens of chemical elements. Each information and communications technology device is a tiny mine of gold, copper, aluminium, platinum, rare earth elements and others (911 Metallurgist, 2013). Most of them are irreplaceable, at least on our planet (Graedel et al., 2013). Elements forged through nuclear reactions of stars and supernovae, millions of years of interplanetary ‘nonlinear history’ (De Landa, 1997), gathered through mineralisations, are compressed into chips that run calculations in nanosecond velocities.
This immense processing power clearly does not come for free. The anthropogenic global warming and other forcings upon the planet are closely inter-connected with taking out of fossil fuels and other substances from the strata. Naomi Klein’s viral slogan that we need to “keep it in the ground” (2014) refers to much more than oil and shale gas. Mineral mining that underpins ICT is an elephant in almost every room, result of intersectional pressures upon environmental and social ecologies. Wars are led for critical metals (‘coltan wars’ in Congo that took away millions of lives since 1998), tailing ponds of mineral mines spill out into surrounding waterways (e.g. massive chemical spill from a copper mine in Mexico, 2014), children are enslaved and exploited (World Vision, 2013), electronic and electrical waste is dumped in China, Africa, and elsewhere. If we extend the notion of ‘conflict’ beyond war to include other forms of violence, the question arises whether there is such a thing as a ‘conflict-free mineral’ and, by extension, a piece of ICT at all1.
Beyond the mineral dependency, the workings of the ICT companies share a few other traits with the mining industry. For example, they ‘mine’ data, big data. Beyond semiotic correspondence, i would like to argue that mining data is a linear extension or transposition of a logic that begins with the digging of the earths2. On the human end, internet users’ activity is a resource, to be extracted, smelted (into datasets), sold, moulded into services, resold to the same or different users… The big data thirst of IT juggernauts in many ways replicates, upscales and transposes the craze of gold rush into the digital realm, with one important difference. Contrary to the limits of resource ecologies, one of the reasons for the immense financial success of IT has been an ideology that there are no boundaries to data growth. “Users will share more and more”, thus goes Mr. Zuckerberg’s mantra3. There is no material nor semiotic discontinuum between data and mineral mining, they are part of a unique extractivist mindset (alike what Brett Bloom calls ‘petro-subjectivity’). Extraction is hard-wired into the most mundane daily intra-actions with ICT devices and beyond. Foucault’s understanding of power crystallises with ICT technologies, which disempower and empower through the same wires. However, earths are in these networks always on the deprivileged end of the apparatus.
These are some preliminary thoughts from which the first leg of my residency with Helsinki International Artist Programme (HIAP) began in April 2015. These considerations grew from the work on office of ecological labour, and with lives of metals, from atmospheric realms i will move into the domain of lithic bodies.
Finland is a country widely known for its high-level education, as one of the early leaders in the ICT sector (Nokia), and for its forests that cover no less than 72% of its surface. But, there are processes that decisively trouble these popular narrative of what the North is. Finland’s mineral reserves are not particularly rich, nevertheless, in line with a larger Scandinavian trend (Vidal, 2014), recent Finnish governments have worked towards enhancing prospects of extraction industry. The country has eventually managed to establish itself as one of the world’s prime mining destinations (GTK, 2015).
Finland’s earliest modern mines date to 1540, thus, as most of European countries, it participates in histories of metallic industry. Of even greater interest is that extraction is acknowledged as a national present-future interest. As of June 2016, there are 5 gold, 4 base metals, and 1 other metal mines in operation, not including non-metallic types of mining. Further to present operations, there are dozens more of explorations claims and permits, trying to materialise futures of extraction. Finland as an attractive mining destination is premised on a permissive and efficient mining regulation, advanced infrastructure, human resources, and highly detailed geological datasets. The state-run Geological Survey of Finland (Geologian tutkimuskeskus, GTK) surveys geological strata and estimates the potential reserves or so-called ‘undiscovered resources’. All the highly elaborated data is made available open access on the GTK’s website. This data is an attractor for mineral hunters/explorers and investors from across the globe4. As a result, “[c]urrently, about 15 per cent of Finland’s surface area is one way or another reserved for mineral prospecting and mining” (Grundström, 2014). As a background noise to these developments hovers the massive environmental disaster caused by leaks from tailing ponds of the then part state-owned Talvivaara mine in 2012 and 2013. This disaster is still ongoing, polluting lakes and rivers, yet, despite popular protests, the extractivist tide seems to continue unabated5.
As a parallel process, big data boom has landed into the country in grand style with Google’s SF-ish data centre at Hamina, a designer conversion of an old paper mill right on the shore of the Baltic. Across the sea, in Luleå, North Sweden, Facebook built its own gigantic green data centre, the first one the company owns in Europe. Data needs air and cool (Parikka, 2015), resources easy to come by in the European North.
Data and minerals shape convergent or divergent futurities of Finland, different modes of occupation of land and distributions and divisions of labour. we ❤ copper & copper ❤ us springs from this mesh of data, policies, financial interests, and geological strata. Data is made of minerals, and minerals’ presents and futures are impacted by data. Can we repurpose the data⤩minerals deep yet suppressed lineage/linkage, reorient it towards more just naturalcultural present-futures?
To make my way through this intricate mess/h, i followed the traces of one extra-human character. Through the circuits of electronic devices, collective imaginaries and my personal nonconscious desires, i was charmed by copper, one of the longest-standing companion elements of humans6. Copper (Cu), chemical number 29, has been mined for about 10,000 years, and, even today, it is one of the most widespread conductors of power and data. Biologically, it is indispensable for the health of vegetal, animal, and human bodies. Its economic/technological importance is such that its price is often quoted as an indicator of the well-being of economy. Its possible scarcity is a source of concern, a sibling of ‘peak oil’ is ‘peak copper’. According to EU, it is not considered to be one of the ‘critical metals’ whose availability is under pressure, but the contemporary techno-society is by all means unimaginable without copper. Beyond its chemical properties, engineering usages and technical applications, how do we humans truly think and feel about this shiny element? It has been a faithful companion to humans, but there is more to it than meets the eye and the electrical spark. Lives of metals is an inquiry into the mental and material ecologies that bind copper and humans, a sounding of patterns of desire that run across the organic–inorganic divide and a poetic speculation on alternative affects in common these different bodies might evolve.
with Mikko Laajola, Romulus Studio, Siru Juntunen
time / location: April — June 2015. Residency with Helsinki International Artist Programme (HIAP), Helsinki. Exhibition Excavations, 13 June — 30 August 2015
media: installation, website
#copper #love #maintenance explored the futurities of copper extraction in Finland as well as the present passions of humans with the metal. The complicated entanglements of the element pushed me to work across subjective, social and inhuman ecologies, creating difficult (im)balances between critical and creative, objective and poetic, visual and discursive modes. What before was clearly philosophical inquiry started seeping into the performative modes, theoretical statements started forming a poetic/cosmological core of the praxis. To try to intra-act with the scales of economic, historical, and, foremost, geological processes, the temporality and spatiality of the work itself started dilating. Lives of metals is still an open project, some parts of it had already materialised, but some significant lines will come to fruit in summer 2017, and even beyond. Becoming occupied by earths is humbling and challenging for the relatively short timespans of art and research.
lives of metals started with a question: how to detour the dominant imaginary of extraction presented as economic inevitability in Finland and beyond? On the web site of the Geological Survey of Finland, in the section Green Mining, it is stated:
In order to ensure the availability of mineral resources for future needs and to fulfil the so-called ‘mineral debt’, we must continue mineral exploration actively and develop our exploration and utilisation methods. (GTK)
Mining is about extracting past to produce a certain type of future. What other futures are possible? I deliberately chose not to focus on ongoing mining operations, and to look what may yet come to be, at the border between the possible (exploration) and the virtual (the earth).
Mineral exploration is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Massive resources need to be streamlined into exploration if the company is to have success (a discovery). In parallel with the existing operations, which cover hundreds and hundreds of square kilometres, geologists cover much larger areas. A mine can be in anyone’s backyard, clearly someone’s more than other’s. As in most of the other places in developed countries, looking from the urban perspective, in this case from Helsinki, mining is commonly believed to take place somewhere beyond yonder. Fair enough, most of mineral mining in Finland at the present takes place in the far north, often in Finnish Lapland7.
At a closer look, the picture is not as clear-cut. Modern mining in Finland, from the 16th century on, developed in the deep South of the country. At the moment, there are only a couple of working mines in this part of the country, but there are a number of potential prospect zones or ‘permissive tracts’ in which lie ‘undiscovered deposits’. What stroke me is that in the maps depicting permissive tracts, no features of the land are presented. Forests are absent, and only large cities are marked.
From the previous considerations about minerals―data entanglement, the operative question of the inquiry became, is there a way to work with data in order to withdraw extraction? To begin with, GTK’s data is open-access for everyone to use, not only geologists and extractivists. The same reports published on GTK’s website, such as Quantitative mineral resource assessment of nickel, copper and cobalt in undiscovered Ni-Cu deposits in Finland, provide indices where to plant a geological hammer. Or to intra-act with mineral bodies differently.
Sieving through numerous open-access reports of the Geological Survey of Finland, i ‘discovered’ a number of places that were drilled for exploratory purposes in search of copper. However, these have been only preliminary explorations, which did not turn into mining operations, yet. Minerals are almost there. Notoriously, as struggles around extraction all across the globe have proved all over again, land ownership is not a guarantee that would divert mining apparatuses. Almost always there is a way to overturn the ownership rights in court, even in the North8. Based on this, it seems that little can be done once the mineral body has been ‘found’. What if it is not found in the first place? What if the indeterminacy of its proximity is instead acknowledged, and there are other nonviolent modes of intra-action that would divert from engaging in extraction? What if these became places where humans and minerals meet outside the logic of domination? Places where humans can revel in the liveliness of the earth’s strata and take time to develop different modes of desire.
So much of human expression is now inscribed in the rocks, as we speak through wires and data. Sometimes, this data speaks about rocks. I wished to acknowledge the material support of this expressivity and, through this recognition, to incite experimenting with different material-discursive proximities. The project actualised into #copper #love #machine9, a nomadic data server hosting a web site, a material-discursive apparatus dedicated towards remembering and amplifying human passions of humans towards copper (fig. 3.57 – 3.60). Copper minerals in electric circuits turn attention to their own materiality as rocks. This is an inhuman performance, rocks embedded in electrical circuits conduct human affects, and, in turn try to rewire human passions. The true knowing, however, here belongs to the metallic bodies, as i will explain shortly.
One line of work consisted in visiting exploration sites drawn from the maps of the Geological Survey of Finland (fig. 1.33, 1.60, 1.87, 1.90, 1.94). In parallel, an online copper mine was developed in collaboration with the web design studio Romulus Studio. The weheartcopperheartus.co website is an aggregator of public conversations about ‘copper’ from across the social media (twitter, instagram, tumblr) (fig. 3.61 – 3.63.). The script looks for all the mentions of the word and collates the posts together. The posts are juxtaposed over the images of the exploration sites in Finland, as well as the geological maps of these areas. The page is updated every 5 minutes, so the website is a near-live feed of what (online & social-media active) humans currently say about the element.
The second component of the work was the making of a container for the data server, a nest for the nest. An alternative to the hyped ‘cloud computing’ is to host data locally. The online mine was set up on an oldish upcycled PC, dug out from a bin, hacked out of its box and turned into an up-and-running web server by Mikko Laajola. As well as bringing the web back home, another intention was to open the sealed architecture of the common data centre architecture. Namely, data centres are often housed in nondescript suburban buildings with no signage, something which clearly goes against all that internet stands for, or should10. Since “data need air” (Parikka, 2015: 39), why not open the wires and servers to the atmosphere?
#copper #love #machine is visually a hybrid of a dog agility tunnel, hoola hoops, a nomadic yurt, a cable shell and a wind tunnel. Instead of a box, the structure emulates a cable with copper heart at the core, which is the most common appeaerance of copper in everyday context. The skeleton of the tunnel is a single spiral of PVC tube bent to produce a cylinder of about 75cm in diameter. The tube carries a fabric emblazoned with digitally printed camouflage-like pattern, composed of shapes extrapolated from Finland’s geological maps (fig. 3.58). Thanks to the skills and vision of fashion designer Siru Juntunen, my messy sketches and prototypes materialised into a solid piece of soft infrastructure. The tunnel was furnished with seven ratchet hooks at each ends, with internal straps running throughout the tunnel. This belt architecture allows it to be suspended, thereby keeping its territory volatile. Two pairs of internal loopholes were used to hang the server computer and a monitor showing the website inside the tunnel. Hence, #copper #love #machine was an apparatus composed of the website, the server and the tunnel.
This DIY data server/tunnel landed the website locally, while continually feeding its content from the web. Following the proprietary guidelines of social media platforms, all the posts presented on the website are only links to the original posts using the <embed> feature11. On the other side, as the website is powered by platinum, copper, silicon, gold, aluminium, and many other extra-human bodies, this is also a place where they, earth others can potentially track what we, humans think about them. And some curious and varied things do ‘we’ think about ‘them’. On the one hand, in 2015, copper was all over the news as it plunged into the ‘bears market’, reaching 6-year lows on commodity markets. On the other hand, it was trending in areas such as fashion, jewelry, IT and interior design, as well as being a very popular hair dye. This surprising media presence of copper reveals the ambiguous status it has, comparable culturally only to gold, the only other ‘coloured’ metal. It is discussed a lot, but this buzz does not make it into a social actor, as it is mostly invoked as commodity, material or decoration. But is it only that? What transpires while following the feed is attention and care that humans direct towards the element, potentially there more going on beneath the quotidian instrumental relations. Copper is an element close to heart, and this mental ecology is in my view a crucial existential territory for more just earthly cohabitations12. Processes of desire emanating from the extractivist subjectivities participate in a common humans―earths affective field that may be more stratified than the Technosphere itself. These nonconscious, conscious and affective strata may provide openings to re-imagine the agential cuts currently determining asymmetrical roles in human-mineral relations.
#copper #love #machine was exhibited as part of Excavations exhibition at Galleri Augusta, Helsinki. Since the launch of the show, my ongoing drifts into the world of metals have been coagulating into intermittent tweets, that thus occasionally blink on the website itself. As part of Excavations, on 17 June, together with the BodyBuilding Project, a collective participating in the show, we organised CONVEY: 12 hours of shared practice, a joint event where i performed #copper #love #maintenance, first of the various earth-oriented performances that continue (fig. 3.64 – 3.66). #copper #love #maintenance was an experiment in story-telling, another mode of embodied documentation of sprawling research vectors. It references Mierle Laderman-Ukeles’s Maintenance Art works of the 1960s and 1970s. In this case, maintenance of #copper #love #machine is more affective, than technical. The performance consisted in reading various bits of discursive material gathered in the process, from geological data to industry statements, traversed with poetic matter-realist musings about copper life. In parallel, i was wrapping the straps of the tunnel in copper tape, which me and audience members stretched at the end therefore wiring the bodies with #copper #love #machine. This story-telling performance has since become an iterative practice of bringing the news back to the gallery, and it will keep re-occurring throughout the successive stages of we ❤ copper ❤ us project.
The project marked a move towards creating assemblages that can perform without human bodies involved. weheartcopperheartus.co website follows an ever-evolving reality of online engagements of humans with copper, spanning beyond any single body’s performativity, a flow of consciousness about the metal, afforded and transmitted by the metal itself. In fact, the first tweet on my @weheartcopper account was “hello #copper world! // message kindly transmitted by copper & a constellation of fellwow minerals //”. At certain moments and in certain locations, this information flow can be joined by a human body performing intensive acts of maintenance.
The questions that this phase of we ❤ copper ❤ us scratched and that will be taken forward are:
can the position of minerals be re(con)figured into assemblies of humans and extra-humans other than linear demand-and-supply chains? how to detour futures from the narrow-mindedness of extractivism? what kind of novel alliances of rocks and human body can be imagined? what other desires than possession and use can be stirred up towards inorganic earth others?
#copper #love #maintenance was a prelude to a longer project that had since evolved into the key piece of this research, which i will talk about in the next section. Beyond that, i would like to note that the one part of the project is to situate #copper #love #machine on top of the undiscovered deposit in a gesture of protection, where minerals themselves will cover their kins that live in the ground13. In May 2016, as the outcome of the second leg of my Frontiers in Retreat residency at Helsinki International Artist Programme, i have organised a symposium earth wants to be free: on rights, autonomy & freedom of other-than-humans in the island of Kemiöonsaari in the South-West of the country. The symposium invoked a group of about 20 artists and researchers who engage in ‘shared conversations’ with extra-human bodies. Over two days, we visited two old mines, Klovakärrsgruvan (1558, 1744) (fig. 1.20, 1.68, 1.92, 1.96) and Östergårdsgrufvan (1877) (fig. 1.25, 1.66, 1.84, 1.89), where we presented and discussed our individual artistic, research and living engagement with extra-human bodies14.
→ Next: 3.6.c. Where copper lives: first strata of a biopic
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- The ‘conflict mineral’ is a policy/activist approach that a number of NGOs used to varying degrees of success since about 2000. (Kinniburgh, 2014) The campaign, started by the U.S.-based Enough Project in 2007 has indeed reaped success when the U.S. Congress passed a financial bill which asked all the companies registered on the U.S. stock exchange to reveal if their products contained conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, Kinniburgh argues, the ‘conflict-free’ approach also complicated matters on ground. In this context, it must be noted that ICT industries are often at the very end of labyrinthine supply chains, which results in IT sector rarely getting bad press on this issue.
- I use ‘earth’ in plural to indicate mining of mineral rocks. In this i am referring to the chemical group of elements of ‘rare earths’, one of the most sought after ICT elements. With this pluralisation of the term i wish to keep present the radical plurality of mineral ways of being. Earth is made of many earths, geology is a pluriverse of ways of becoming.
- This prophecy seemed true for most of the first decade of Facebook’s operations. However, in April 2016, it was revealed that users are sharing less personal information.
- Curiously, one month after i had completed this part of research, a major new monograph in English about the economic potential of minerals in Finland was published (Maier, Lahtinen & O’Brien, 2015). Many eyes are looking at Finnish bedrock.
- During my stay at Helsinki, i attended several symposia at the University of Helsinki concerning extraction industry in the country. Mining is a topic around which intense activist and academic activity is taking place, especially after the Talvivaara disaster. These academic and activist debates highly influenced my project and impacted the analytical outlook of the research in complex ways. This will become clearer in the project narrative of mineralizacija (see 3.6.d.).
- “The medieval noun-verb …. charm [combines] arousal and capture with materiality (a charm is a piece of jewelry or a magic object) and inherent dynamism (a charm is a spell, words come to life, deriving from Latin carmen, ‘song’.” (Cohen, 2015: 132)
- As it happens too often in the global South and North, these remote (resource) frontiers are not as void as the extractivists would have it. In the Finnish North, the extraction industry is drastically at odds with the livelihoods of local indigenous Sami population (Nimtz-Köster, 2012; Vidal, 2014). This is one of the less visible borderlines along which more-than-human futures are being struggled for.
- A recent case in Finland is the construction of a nuclear power plant in Pyhäjoki in North Finland. Despite the fact that the locals owning land collectively refused to sell their land in the Hankihivi peninsula in question, the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland ruled against, thereby opening to construction and land evictions.
- A spin on Deleuze and Guattari’s popular but, in my view, highly problematic notion of ‘war machine’.
- For a glimpse of data centre aesthetics, it is illustrative to do a web search for ‘Utah Data Center’, the data storage of the NSA surveillance programme, whose existence was leaked by Edward Snowden. After that, it is interesting to web search ‘data center building’ in general to see that the majority of data centres perpetuates a similar aesthetics of windowless anonymity and enclosure. Data is the new treasure kept in highly policed vaults.
- On a very small scale the tunnel replicates the archiving of tweets that National Library of Congress at Washington and the British Library have been planning to do. The Library of Congress in 2010 announced that it will start archiving all the tweets generated since the inception of the service in 2006. As of 2015, the project is in limbo, apparently for technical reasons. The British Library’s plan is more down to earth, as it envisages conserving only the UK geo-tagged tweets. For the limitations of our hosting service, the #weheartcopper archive covers only 30 minutes of timeframe.
- The title of the work itself crystallised at some point through the multi-layered research and production process, when i perceived the extent to which humans are strangely attracted to the the ‘red metal’. This aspect will be explored more extensively in the next phase of this project, in a context where the metal is part of daily life.
- #occupy #withdraw #earth, the working title of this performance, is expected to materialise for the final Frontiers in Retreat exhibition in summer 2017.
- These conversations helped crystallise ideas that await follow-up beyond the doctoral research itself.