Category Archives: mining

Materialism, an exercise in dismantling consumer culture

Studio Drift creates elegant installations and interactive sculptures that explore the relationship between nature, human and technology. The creative duo currently has a solo show at the new, spectacular Amos Rex art museum in Helsinki. During my visit there, I was vexed to learn that everybody but me knew the work of Studio Drift.


Studio Drift, Light bulb, from the series Materialism


Studio Drift, Drifter, 2019. Photo: Stella Ojala for Amos Rex


Studio Drift, VW Beetle 1980, from the series Materialism. Photo by Stella Ojala for Amos Rex

A huge block of concrete floating above visitors’ heads, a light sculpture made of dandelion seeds and LED-lights, etc. Studio Drift excels at experimenting with technology. Materialism, the work in the show that impressed me the most, was decidedly less technologically sophisticated but it nevertheless tells a powerful story about how little we know about the objects we surround ourselves with.

For this series, the designers took consumer goods such as a vacuum cleaner, a classic Nokia phone, a Volkswagen Beetle, a pencil, a PET bottle, a light bulb and a bicycle and literally reduced their complexity to the raw materials they are made of.

Still, Materialism is an affecting exercise in dismantling consumer culture, in leaving aside functions and in ennobling the resources we extract from the Earth at great human and environmental costs.

Studio Drift, Materialism


Studio Drift, Pencil, from the series Materialism


Studio Drift, Gazelle Bicycle 2005, from the series Materialism. Photograph by Gert Jan van Rooij

Each big or small object in their Materialism series becomes unrecognizable. A bicycle is converted to blocks of rubber, polyurethane, steel, aluminum, lacquer paint and other materials. A pencil becomes wood, graphite and a bit of paint. Sometimes the inside of objects is rather surprising. Who knew that a Volkswagen Beetle from the 1980s contained horsehair and cork, for example?

Studio Drift writes that “If humankind could somehow perceive this connection to materials, to our collective consumption and the earth it impoverishes, it would be a leap in our social evolution, in building an awareness that we must somehow become better stewards of our future.” I disagree with that confident statement. I think we’ve been warned time and time again that our reckless looting of the earth is becoming “unsustainable”. Newspapers, documentaries and scientists have spent the past few years telling the Western world that we need to consume less, that resources are not infinite, etc. And yet, we’re still here. Students are protesting in the streets and politicians pretend younger generations will get tired of asking for a future we’ve stolen from them.


Studio Drift, Nokia 3210, from the series Materialism. Installation view at Amos Rex


Studio Drift, Dandelight, from the series Materialism. Photograph by Gert Jan van Rooij


Studio Drift, VW Beetle 1980, from the series Materialism


Studio Drift, Materialism at Amos Rex. Photo by Stella Ojala

I’ll end with a few images of the Amos Rex art museum. Its programme of exhibitions that mixes the ultra contemporary with modern artists (right now they have a big show dedicated to René Magritte) is almost as impressive as its architecture. JKMM Architects excavated the ground beneath an ex-bus station, hid the museum down there and created skylights that bubble up through the surface of the ground as domes, turning the square into a playground for skaters and children. The space also has the usual museum shop and an exquisitely renovated Art Deco cinema called Bio Rex.


Amos Rex Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo / Amos Rex, 2018


Amos Rex Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Mika Huisman / Amos Rex


Amos Rex Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Mika Huisman / Amos Rex


Amos Rex, Bio Rex, Helsinki. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo / Amos Rex, 2018


Amos Rex, Bio Rex (interior), Helsinki

Elemental, Studio Drift’s solo show, remains open at Amos Rex in Helsinki until 19 May 2019 alongside the first show in Finland dedicated to René Magritte.

The scars left by electronic culture on indigenous lands


Linda Persson, It was like experiencing a fold in time, she said, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag for Momentum9


Lightning Ridge mine. Photo courtesy of Linda Persson

The latest edition of the MOMENTUM, the Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art explores the increasing unease and sense of alienation we feel when confronted with a world increasingly governed by technological, ecological and social shifts. I’ve already reviewed the event in previous stories but today i’d like to take a closer look at Linda Persson‘s contribution to the biennial because it uses several lenses and strategies to investigate aspects of our electronic culture that often remain under-scrutinized.

Informed by several years of research in the Australian outback desert, It Was Like Experiencing a Fold in Time, She Said bridges the gap between, on the one hand, the landscapes, mythologies and life of outback and aboriginal communities and on the other hand, the brutal origins of our technological ‘progress.’ The work highlights how alienated we are from the geological physicality of our so-called immaterial digital technology. Many of us might not realize it but there would be no IT, no ‘green’ energy without rare earths, iron ore, cobalt and other minerals that are dug out of the ground at huge costs for the environment and local communities.


Linda working in Queenstown, Tasmania. Photo : Liam Sprod, courtesy of Linda Persson


Helicopter mine survey, Goldfields, Western Australia. Photo courtesy of Linda Persson

Over the course of her research across ghost towns, open mining sites and discussions with local communities, Persson has been uncovering the toxic traces left by the mining industry on indigenous lands and human lives. Some of these traces are palpable and highly visible. Others are far more insidious and concealed.


Linda Persson, It was like experiencing a fold in time, she said, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag for Momentum9


Linda Persson, It was like experiencing a fold in time, she said, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag for Momentum9

Burkholderia pseudomallei is of the insidious kind. When in contact with humans and animal through air or skin wounds, this microscopic bacterium can cause a deadly disease called Melioidosis that eats into the brain and spinal cord in a matter of days. The bacterium normally lives into the soil and its emergence is one of the unintended consequences of the increase in mining, oil and gas extraction in Australia.

Over the past few years, the country has seen a surge in the number of Melioidosis cases and the disease is expected to spread south with climate change.

Persson managed to render visible the presence of the microscopic bacteria in the most poetical and visually seducing way. She magnified them as beautiful organic patterns fossilized inside hand-blown glass sculptures.


Linda Persson, It was like experiencing a fold in time, she said, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag for Momentum9

Another chapter in Persson’s exhibition at Momentum 9 is And Then We Ran Away, a video work that weaves together interviews with Aboriginal women talking about their many languages and culture, images of fauna and flora as well as helicopter rides over the scars that mining activities leave on the landscape. The film quietly conveys how indigenous land is heavily exploited for the raw materials that power the technology we use on a daily basis. Aboriginal peoples, hit by the industry while being often excluded from it, have a deep connection to their ancestral land. The loss, profiteering and poisoning of the territory has thus a devastating social and physical impact on them.


Opalised fossil. Photo courtesy of the artist


Linda Persson, It was like experiencing a fold in time, she said, 2017. Photo : Liam Sprod, courtesy of Linda Persson<


Linda Persson, It was like experiencing a fold in time, she said, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag for Momentum9

The final work in the show is SiO2.nH2O, a video installation that unfolds the various time frames of our mineral-mediated culture. SiO2.nH2O is the chemical formula of opal, the national gemstone of Australia. And the .n stands for the water molecules enclosed into tiny voids within the silicon structure, suggesting a dormant life inside the mineraloid.

SiO2.nH2O takes advantage of the internal structure of opal which is able to diffract light: Found 23-40 metres underground, surrounded by thousands of years in sandstone and clay, the opal acts as a time machine producing a light show that makes deep time visible here in the present. It portrays the potential of life, encapsulated dormant inside, ready to awaken in a future that the human species might never get to experience.

The ability of opal to act as a time travel agent doesn’t end there. It turns out that opal miners in Lightning Ridge, one of the towns in New South Wales where Persson worked on her research, have been digging up dinosaur fossils for years. Even more interestingly, the remains of the prehistoric reptiles are preserved as opal.

It Was Like Experiencing a Fold in Time, She Said is framed by an artificial landscape. The red sand used in the exhibition doesn’t come from the Australian outbacks, it simply imitates its colour of the burnt out desert area. As for the kaleidoscopic collages printed on the panels, they give a vertiginous top-down overview of the landscape around the mines, wounded by extraction processes.


Dead snake in Goldfields. Photo courtesy of Linda Persson


Old mining community, Goldfields. Photo courtesy of Linda Persson


Linda Person exploring the landscape. Photo courtesy of Linda Persson


Photo courtesy of Linda Persson


Linda Persson, It was like experiencing a fold in time, she said, 2017. Photo by Istvan Virag for Momentum9

Momentum 9, The Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art curated by Ulrika Flink, Ilari Laamanen, Jacob Lillemose, Gunhild Moe and Jón B.K Ransu remains open in various location in Moss, Norway, until 11 October 2017.

Previously: MOMENTUM9 – “Alienation is our contemporary condition”, MOMENTUM9. Maybe none of this is science fiction, The Museum of NonHumanity and MOMENTUM 9: A case for user-alienating design.

HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet

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The HYBRID MATTERs symposium, which, took place at the University of the Arts in Helsinki a couple of weeks ago, investigated the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity (and in particular technological activity.) There were talks about BINC technologies, animal sensors, slow violence and fast computation, plastiglomerates, plant subjectivities, plantamorphization, etc.

It was an eye-opening event in many aspects. It was also fun, engaging and inspiring. I still have to catch up with a few urgent deadlines this week but as soon as i’m done with those, i should be able to sit down and blog the pile of notes and photos i’ve taken while i was in Helsinki. In the meantime, if you’re curious about the event, just hop over here and enjoy the videos of the whole conference.


HYBRID MATTERs Symposium Panel I: In the Aftermath with Kristina Lindström, Åsa Ståhl, Thora Petursdottir, Björn Wallsten. On Friday 25th of November 2016

The panels of the second day were particularly exciting. Each of them. But i have a soft spot for Panel I: In the Aftermath that brought together artists Kristina Lindström and Åsa Ståhl, archaelogist Thora Petursdottir as well as researcher Björn Wallsten. Their presentation discussed the debris, narratives, material and processes that Western ideas of progress and development have discarded and left behind. What if it was not all about progress, novelty, invention and technological development?

What if we instead direct our attention towards processes of decay, erosion, breakdown and mouldering? What kind of practices and making does that invite for? What stories would we then be able to tell?

1urkin1_900x600
Björn Wallsten digging for urks. Photo: Linköping University

There’s one talk i’d like to highlight from the panel as it’s the one that stuck to my mind long after my departure from Helsinki. First, because i can’t resist a new word that evokes enigmatic worlds buried under our streets. Second, because although it focused on a Swedish industrial town i had never heard about before, the research should concern any urban agglomeration. Meet the urks

Björn Wallsten is a post-doc researcher at the unit Technology and Social Change at Linköping University in Sweden and his research deals with urban mining and in particular urks, the disconnected infrastructure that was once crucial to urban life but is now out of use and is often invisible to us.

Urks are cables and pipes that remain under the ground after having be put out of use and disconnected. The researcher calls these leftovers ‘urks’, short for the swedish word urkopplad. Could we dig them out and recycle the valuable materials they are made of?

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Panel I: In the Aftermath

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An electric cable urk

On the one hand, Wallsten’s research engaged in environmental systems analysis and made quantitative estimates of how big and spatially dispersed the worlds of Swedish urks are. On the other hand, the research was also exploring the social practices that surround the understanding, the accumulation and abandonment of urks as well as the practices related to the maintenance and upgrading of urban infrastructure.

1. Environmental systems analysis
The quantitative method used is called Material Flow Analysis (MFA.) MFA is used to quantify how much minerals we have dug up over time, how much of these masses have been used to erect the built environment and how much we have discarded and put in waste depositories such as landfills. If you have good estimates of how much stuff we’ve dug up and how much is piled in landfills, you can estimate the amount that should be present in the built environment.

However, when the researchers added together the estimates made of the weights of cities and landfills and compared them with the amounts that have been extracted over time, the numbers don’t add up. Which means that some masses are missing. Where are these so-called ‘hibernating stocks’?

Wallsten did a special MFA on the city of Norrköping in Sweden, focusing particularly on the urban underground. The objective was to make estimates of the hibernating stocks (mostly copper, aluminium and steel) that are theoretically available for recycling.

In total the researchers found something like 5000 tons of unused metals which corresponded to a fourth of the weight of the city infrastructure.

To give us an idea of how much this is, Wallsten explained that the 560 tonnes of copper that might be lurking under the streets of Norrköping is enough to provide the copper necessary to build 30 000 cars or 400 000 computers. The currently existing Urk world potentially contains enough copper to replace all the copper in electricity and telecoms cables in Sweden for the next 7 to 8 years.

And if you go to that level of comparison, you can compare the amount of copper in the Swedish electricity and telecom infrastructure to the amount left in the reserves of Sweden’s mine of Aitik, one of Europe’s largest copper mine.

0aitik_large9009
Aitik copper mine. Photo Boliden

But what are the implications of the existence of Urks? How can Urks be understood? What consequences does different Urk interpretations have for finding trajectories for their increased recycling?

The researchers asked these questions to different actors involved in infrastructure and waste related matters: the Swedish Ministry of Environment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, a major metal recycling company, the Swedish Recyclers Association, the Technical Administration and Environment and Health offices of two municipalities, one cable consultancy company, two infrastructure system owners and one construction company.

These actors interpreted Urks in very different ways and understood them as entities that resisted easy categorisations. Some of these interpretations and their consequences in relation to Urk recycling.

What is an Urk?
Some respondents consider Urk as waste, “an entity that their owner had shown a clear interest or will to get rid of”. This interpretation makes the removal of Urks the responsibility of their owner. The problem is that such interpretation turns the Urk world, thus the urban underground, into a landfill! According to Swedish laws, safety precautions are required to prevent a landfill area from leaking toxic substances. The consequence of regarding Urks as waste is thus that all Sweden cities would need to implement landfill safety measures which is impossible. Or that the Swedish landfill legislation has to be rewritten. this kind of understanding would make our regulatory framework surrounding landfills and other things collapses.
Considering Urk as waste is a non-option.

A second interpretation considers Urks as resources because they contain valuable metals that could potentially be recycled. Following this interpretation, the urk world constitutes a mineral deposit that could be used for urban mining. The problem then is that Swedish recycling is done in a market setting and Urks cannot be recycled with a profit so the’re no chance anyone would want to engage with it. Interpreting Urks as resources is thus not enough to make things happen but it suggests several issues and unrolls several actors whose conflicting interests must be resolved for recycling to occur.

A third understanding regarded urks as pollution sources since some contains lead, asbestos and similar substances that can leak and contaminate soils. Such an understanding sends urks removal at the back of the queue behind more pressing concerns, the ones on top of the Swedish list of contaminated areas deemed for remediation. This last understanding of urks is quite convenient for the involved actors since no immediate action is required and no one is immediately responsible for urk removal which would be a costly endeavour nobody wants to grapple with.

The Swedish Ministry of Environment said this is how we handle this matter today: by hiding it under more pressing concerns.

Conclusion: The ambiguity of waste-like matter such as Urks might used to encapsulate their political potential: Urks can simultaneously be waste, resources, pollution sources and other things. We can use this pluralistic capacity to turn them from being a non-issue to a matter of concern. It is the possibility to understand Urks in different ways that harbour this political potentials, as different interpretations suggests different matters of concerns, conflict of interest that must be resolved for some kind of change to happen.

Wallsten’s PhD thesis, The Urk World – Hibernating Infrastructures and the Quest for Urban Mining, is available online as a free PDF.

The HYBRID MATTERs symposium was part of a Nordic art&science research program that looked at hybrid ecologies, the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity.

HYBRID MATTERs: The urks lurking beneath our feet

0urkiiil09009900

The HYBRID MATTERs symposium, which, took place at the University of the Arts in Helsinki a couple of weeks ago, investigated the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity (and in particular technological activity.) There were talks about BINC technologies, animal sensors, slow violence and fast computation, plastiglomerates, plant subjectivities, plantamorphization, etc.

It was an eye-opening event in many aspects. It was also fun, engaging and inspiring. I still have to catch up with a few urgent deadlines this week but as soon as i’m done with those, i should be able to sit down and blog the pile of notes and photos i’ve taken while i was in Helsinki. In the meantime, if you’re curious about the event, just hop over here and enjoy the videos of the whole conference.


HYBRID MATTERs Symposium Panel I: In the Aftermath with Kristina Lindström, Åsa Ståhl, Thora Petursdottir, Björn Wallsten. On Friday 25th of November 2016

The panels of the second day were particularly exciting. Each of them. But i have a soft spot for Panel I: In the Aftermath that brought together artists Kristina Lindström and Åsa Ståhl, archaelogist Thora Petursdottir as well as researcher Björn Wallsten. Their presentation discussed the debris, narratives, material and processes that Western ideas of progress and development have discarded and left behind. What if it was not all about progress, novelty, invention and technological development?

What if we instead direct our attention towards processes of decay, erosion, breakdown and mouldering? What kind of practices and making does that invite for? What stories would we then be able to tell?

1urkin1_900x600
Björn Wallsten digging for urks. Photo: Linköping University

There’s one talk i’d like to highlight from the panel as it’s the one that stuck to my mind long after my departure from Helsinki. First, because i can’t resist a new word that evokes enigmatic worlds buried under our streets. Second, because although it focused on a Swedish industrial town i had never heard about before, the research should concern any urban agglomeration. Meet the urks

Björn Wallsten is a post-doc researcher at the unit Technology and Social Change at Linköping University in Sweden and his research deals with urban mining and in particular urks, the disconnected infrastructure that was once crucial to urban life but is now out of use and is often invisible to us.

Urks are cables and pipes that remain under the ground after having be put out of use and disconnected. The researcher calls these leftovers ‘urks’, short for the swedish word urkopplad. Could we dig them out and recycle the valuable materials they are made of?

3urk2a307e9d4_b
Panel I: In the Aftermath

3passcabl95e5c1a_b
An electric cable urk

On the one hand, Wallsten’s research engaged in environmental systems analysis and made quantitative estimates of how big and spatially dispersed the worlds of Swedish urks are. On the other hand, the research was also exploring the social practices that surround the understanding, the accumulation and abandonment of urks as well as the practices related to the maintenance and upgrading of urban infrastructure.

1. Environmental systems analysis
The quantitative method used is called Material Flow Analysis (MFA.) MFA is used to quantify how much minerals we have dug up over time, how much of these masses have been used to erect the built environment and how much we have discarded and put in waste depositories such as landfills. If you have good estimates of how much stuff we’ve dug up and how much is piled in landfills, you can estimate the amount that should be present in the built environment.

However, when the researchers added together the estimates made of the weights of cities and landfills and compared them with the amounts that have been extracted over time, the numbers don’t add up. Which means that some masses are missing. Where are these so-called ‘hibernating stocks’?

Wallsten did a special MFA on the city of Norrköping in Sweden, focusing particularly on the urban underground. The objective was to make estimates of the hibernating stocks (mostly copper, aluminium and steel) that are theoretically available for recycling.

In total the researchers found something like 5000 tons of unused metals which corresponded to a fourth of the weight of the city infrastructure.

To give us an idea of how much this is, Wallsten explained that the 560 tonnes of copper that might be lurking under the streets of Norrköping is enough to provide the copper necessary to build 30 000 cars or 400 000 computers. The currently existing Urk world potentially contains enough copper to replace all the copper in electricity and telecoms cables in Sweden for the next 7 to 8 years.

And if you go to that level of comparison, you can compare the amount of copper in the Swedish electricity and telecom infrastructure to the amount left in the reserves of Sweden’s mine of Aitik, one of Europe’s largest copper mine.

0aitik_large9009
Aitik copper mine. Photo Boliden

But what are the implications of the existence of Urks? How can Urks be understood? What consequences does different Urk interpretations have for finding trajectories for their increased recycling?

The researchers asked these questions to different actors involved in infrastructure and waste related matters: the Swedish Ministry of Environment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, a major metal recycling company, the Swedish Recyclers Association, the Technical Administration and Environment and Health offices of two municipalities, one cable consultancy company, two infrastructure system owners and one construction company.

These actors interpreted Urks in very different ways and understood them as entities that resisted easy categorisations. Some of these interpretations and their consequences in relation to Urk recycling.

What is an Urk?
Some respondents consider Urk as waste, “an entity that their owner had shown a clear interest or will to get rid of”. This interpretation makes the removal of Urks the responsibility of their owner. The problem is that such interpretation turns the Urk world, thus the urban underground, into a landfill! According to Swedish laws, safety precautions are required to prevent a landfill area from leaking toxic substances. The consequence of regarding Urks as waste is thus that all Sweden cities would need to implement landfill safety measures which is impossible. Or that the Swedish landfill legislation has to be rewritten. this kind of understanding would make our regulatory framework surrounding landfills and other things collapses.
Considering Urk as waste is a non-option.

A second interpretation considers Urks as resources because they contain valuable metals that could potentially be recycled. Following this interpretation, the urk world constitutes a mineral deposit that could be used for urban mining. The problem then is that Swedish recycling is done in a market setting and Urks cannot be recycled with a profit so the’re no chance anyone would want to engage with it. Interpreting Urks as resources is thus not enough to make things happen but it suggests several issues and unrolls several actors whose conflicting interests must be resolved for recycling to occur.

A third understanding regarded urks as pollution sources since some contains lead, asbestos and similar substances that can leak and contaminate soils. Such an understanding sends urks removal at the back of the queue behind more pressing concerns, the ones on top of the Swedish list of contaminated areas deemed for remediation. This last understanding of urks is quite convenient for the involved actors since no immediate action is required and no one is immediately responsible for urk removal which would be a costly endeavour nobody wants to grapple with.

The Swedish Ministry of Environment said this is how we handle this matter today: by hiding it under more pressing concerns.

Conclusion: The ambiguity of waste-like matter such as Urks might used to encapsulate their political potential: Urks can simultaneously be waste, resources, pollution sources and other things. We can use this pluralistic capacity to turn them from being a non-issue to a matter of concern. It is the possibility to understand Urks in different ways that harbour this political potentials, as different interpretations suggests different matters of concerns, conflict of interest that must be resolved for some kind of change to happen.

Wallsten’s PhD thesis, The Urk World – Hibernating Infrastructures and the Quest for Urban Mining, is available online as a free PDF.

The HYBRID MATTERs symposium was part of a Nordic art&science research program that looked at hybrid ecologies, the convergence of our environment with technology and essentially the intentional and unintentional transformation of our planet through human activity.