Category Archives: Sweden

What would a public park look like if it was built from the perspective of bees?

Erik Sjödin‘s art and research practice has led him to investigate human relationships to fire, aquatic plants that might one day feed the first inhabitants of planet Mars, bees and humans connections and community-based ways of producing food.


Erik Sjödin, Bee shed in Lötsjön natural reserve and park, Stockholm, Sweden 2018. Photo Erik Sjödin

I’ve been following his work since 2011 and always thought there was something remarkably peaceful, generous and efficient about his work. At a time when artists, journalists and scientists alike are calling for a more considerate, a less anthropocentric way to live on this planet, Sjödin is quietly doing just that. Working on potential solutions to problems of contemporary urgency and sharing the lessons with others through exhibitions, publications, workshops as well as collaborations with scientists, farmers, gardeners, other artists and chefs.

Anytime is a good time to catch up with Sjödin and interview him about his latest projects. My excuse to get in touch with him again is Community Services, an exhibition in Marabouparken in Sundbyberg, just north of Stockholm. The show brings human beings closer to bees by revealing how the small pollinators have been “understood, written about, cared for, neglected and persecuted by humans.”

The Political Beekeeper’s Library and Bee Shed are two of the works the artist is showing in Marabouparken. The former is a collection of books where authors from Aristoteles to Thomas D. Seeley draw parallels between bees and humans, in particular how they are socially and politically organized. “What starts as a story of a patriarchal monarchy ends with a tale of radical democracy.” Bee Shed is a sculpture that also functions as a large house for pollinators. The shelter explores what a public park would look like if it was built from the perspective of the wildlife that use the park alongside the humans.


Reading performance by artist Mia Isabel Edelgart at the bee shed in Marabouparken, Stockholm Sweden, 2018. Photo Erik Sjödin

Here’s what our email exchanges looked like:

Hi Erik! For the Marabouparken, you have created a sculpture that also functions as a house for pollinators. The work questions our understanding of what constitutes a ‘good’, pleasant park and suggests that we might want to interrogate this human-centered perception and think about what a park would be/look like if it were built from the perspective of the wildlife that use the park. Can you then tell us about some of the characteristics and qualities of a park that caters also for non-human living species?

For the Marabou park I have created a bee shed. It is essentially what’s usually called a “bee hotel”, although I’m trying to contrast the transient dwelling and luxury connotations that a hotel has by calling it a shed. In its appearance the structure is humble and resembles a wood shed for storing firewood. A wood shed is a typical structure that is part of the old cultural landscape in Sweden and may provide habitat for many insects and other animal.

The Marabou park was initially landscaped in the beginning of the 20th century with the intent to provide relief for workers at the Marabou factory which is now an art space. Two separate parts of the park were explicitly constructed with inspiration from The Arts and Craft Movement and Functionalism respectively. The arts and craft movement came about in 19th century Britain as a reaction to increased industrialisation and harsh conditions for factory workers. Functionalism emerged in the first half of the 20th century and promoted increased industrialisation and efficiency. Although contradictory both of these design and construction philosophies have in common that they try to provide for the needs of humans. They also have in common that they don’t actively take into account the needs of nonhumans such as animals and plants.

With the bee shed we try to add an element of consideration also for nonhumans in the park. It provides a habitat for solitary bees and other insects. We will also work with the park management to increase the amount of flowering plants in the park, for example in the form of more meadows instead of lawns, and to create more habitats for animals, for example by leaving logs and falling tree branches on the ground for insects to nest in. Since public awareness and interest in biodiversity in cities is increasing this is also something that the park management and the municipality is interested in and already working with.

Increased biodiversity in parks in the form of flowering plants, buzzing bees and chirping birds etc can provide aesthetic pleasure to park residents and be relevant besides from the intrinsic value nonhuman life has. Biodiversity doesn’t have to conflict with human interests. Studies have also shown that the best protection for biodiverse urban areas such as parks and forests is human engagement in them.

You’ve been working a lot with bees over these past few years. Recently, journalists have been writing about insect numbers falling because of pesticides, pollution and loss of habitat. Have you found that the public is sufficiently informed and concerned about the disappearance of the little pollinators?

In Sweden media attention and campaigns from various organisations and public figures have done a lot to increase awareness about pollinators. Recently other species than honey bees, mainly pollinators, have gained media attention and people are becoming more aware that there are many insects that are integral to agriculture and our ecosystems in general. People want to save the bees. In general though I would guess that the interest for insects is marginal and insects are probably still mostly considered an annoyance.


Our Friends the Pollinators, workshop at Marabouparken, 2018

How much can artists and grassroots movements bring to the emergency to save bees? Can citizens have a real impact on the problem or is the survival of bee populations mostly in the hands of governments and the agro-food industry?

Artists and other citizens and organisations that create awareness help shape public opinion which create incentive for governments to develop policies that allow for farmers and industry to change their practices in ways that increase biodiversity. When many people change their consumption patterns, for example by choosing more ecological and locally produced food and other products, that may also make real difference.


The Political Beekeeper’s Library at Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden 2017


Karl von Frisch, The Dancing Bees, 1927

The Political Beekeeper’s Library (a research which you generously share at thepoliticalbeekeeperslibrary.org) looks at books where parallels are drawn between how bees and humans are socially and politically organised. “What starts as a story of a patriarchal monarchy ends with a tale of radical democracy.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

Those are not my own words but it is a fitting and hopeful description of the library as a whole. The library contains books spanning from 4th century BCE when the hive was generally considered as a kingdom, a notion that dominated into the 17th century when the idea of the hive as a monarchy but now with a queen began to emerge. In the 21st century there has been scientific books published which dethrone the queen and describe the beehive as having democratic elements. Radical is a word that is relative but in some contexts the collective decision making methods the bees apply could be described as radical.

As your research shows, bee organisations have been understood in different ways through time. Are the way they function and govern themselves subject to as many interpretations as there are political systems in favour at a certain moment? Or have we, in the 21h century, finally reached an agreement, an objective understanding on how bees are socially organised?

I suspect there isn’t agreement or understanding about all aspects of how bees are socially organised even among scientist such as entomologist and animal behaviourists. However, there are a lot of behaviours that have been independently observed and there is consensus around. In contemporary non-academic but “science based” literature interpretations of the bee society still vary wildly, from the hive being described as a smooth running company with a skilled CEO to the hive being a dystopian totalitarian state.


The Political Beekeeper’s Library at Losæter, in Oslo, Norway 2017


The Political Beekeeper’s Library at Losæter, in Oslo, Norway 2017

What lessons could humans draw from the way bees are organised?

I would be careful to apply ideas about how bees are organised onto how humans ought to be organised, but many people have done so. The roman philosopher Seneca for example is said to have been inspired by the poet Virgil’s depiction of the beehive as a kingdom in claiming that monarchy is an invention of nature. Seneca was the teacher of emperor Nero who eventually forced Seneca to take his own life for alleged treason. Perhaps Seneca regretted drawing conclusions from the bees.

Thomas D. Seeley who is the author of Honey Bee Democracy, published in 2010, advocates that humans should learn from the decision method that bees use when they swarm and have to decide for a new place to nest in. However, that decision method, a form of representative quorum sensing, is just one of many more or less democratic decision making methods that are available to us humans.


Nest for solitary bees made of reed bundled in birch bark, at Marabouparken 2018.

Let’s say i’m someone who has access to a balcony or a garden but i don’t want to install a beehive. Is there still something i can do to help bee pop thrive?

Yes. Lawns are great for play and leisure but if you have more lawn than you need then it’s a good idea to convert some of it into meadow or to plant other flowering plants. Bees enjoy flowering herbs for example, which also works great to grow on a balcony. If the balcony is too high up for the bees then at least you have something to spice up your food with. You can also create habitats for wild bees, for example by making dry sand and soil beds for ground nesting mining bees, or by drilling holes of various sizes in old logs for mason bees and leaf cutter bees.


The Azolla Cooking and Cultivation Project at Agoramania in Paris, France 2018. Screening of video material courtesy of Ségolène Guinard / NASA


Azolla Cultivations at Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Photo: Hauser & Wirth Somerset


Azolla Cultivations at Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Photo: Hauser & Wirth Somerset

I think the last time i interviewed you was about The Azolla Cooking and Cultivation Project. That was in 2011 and the work continues to attract interest from art institutions. Has the project evolved and grown since we last talked about it?

It keeps getting more complex and has reached a point where it’s difficult to push some aspects of the project further without proper scientific studies, but I’m still working with it when opportunity arises. Recently I’ve been collaborating with Ségolène Guinard, a philosopher and PhD candidate who has studied space exploration and plants in space. Since Azolla has been proposed as a potential crop for Mars settlement I think it’s valuable to bring her contextualising perspectives into the project. I’ve also participated with an indoor Azolla cultivation in the comprehensive exhibition The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset. This gave me some resources and incentive to try new technology for growing Azolla under artificial light. I’ve had some trouble growing Azolla indoors previously but now I have gotten this to work pretty well. If cultivation under artificial light makes sense in general can be questioned, but it enables me to keep the plant growing year around and learn more about it.


Apiary made of drift wood. In the west fjords, Iceland 2017

Any upcoming project, event or field of research you’d like to share with us?

Currently I’m mainly focusing on research and production of work related to pollinators. Last year I visited beekeepers in Iceland to document their apiaries and try to understand their motivations for keeping bees in Iceland. Beekeeping is not yet established in Iceland and the conditions are not always ideal for beekeeping. Honey bees might also compete with native pollinators for limited floral resources. I’m hoping to maybe go back to Iceland to visit more beekeepers and to connect to researchers who monitors the flora and fauna on Iceland. Eventually I would like to put some effort into presenting the material and research I’ve gathered, which I think paints a complex and both problematic and hopeful picture.


Apiary in south-west Iceland, 2017

Why would beekeepers want to establish bee colonies in Iceland if the conditions there are, as you noted, not optimal? Do you already have an idea of the motivation of the beekeepers or do you still need to do more research into it?

Why people attempt to keep bees on Iceland is part of what I have been trying to find out. People have been trying since the 1940’s and so far it hasn’t worked out in the long run. There are around a hundred beekeepers on Iceland now, more than ever before. Maybe together they can figure out how to make the bees thrive. Some people are quite successful, although in general they are still dependent on import of bees.

The beekeepers on Iceland are all part of the same community of beekeepers and they import bees from a beekeeper on the island Åland in the Baltic Sea. The reason they import from Åland is because the honey bees there aren’t infested with the dreaded varroa mite. One reason for beekeeping on Iceland that many beekeepers bring up is that if beekeeping is successfully established then Iceland could be another “safe zone” where bees can thrive without the mite.

There’s not much reason to keep bees for the honey. The yields are generally quite small and importing honey is much easier and cheaper. However, although I don’t think people do it just for the money, local honey can be marketed and sold to very high prices on Iceland and this actually makes it a more lucrative business for some than beekeeping is in, for example, Sweden. Some beekeepers hope that honey bees could help with pollination of plants and boost their local flora, but there’s not a real need for pollination of crops. I think generally people keep honey bees simply because they think it’s fun and they would like to have bees around just like they have other domesticated animals. Some people have lived abroad and been beekeepers in for example Norway or Sweden, and they want to continue to keep bees on Iceland too. One beekeeper, an artist, simply said it was for aesthetic reasons, he would like to have bees buzzing around on his farm.

Thanks Erik!

The work of Erik Sjödin and of Mia Isabel Edelgart is on view at the exhibition Community Services in Marabouparken’s BOX and park until 26 August 2018.

Sjödin’s work is also part of the exhibition Eco-Visionaries at Bildmuseet in Umea, Sweden until 21 October 2018.

Previously: Super Meal; Interview with Kultivator, an experimental cooperation of organic farming and visual art practice; Survival Kit Festival in Umeå and The Seed Journey to preserve plant genetic diversity. An interview with Amy Franceschini.

The Nuclear Culture Source Book

nuclear-culture-coverThe Nuclear Culture Source Book, edited by Ele Carpenter, a curator, writer and one of the driving forces behind the Nuclear Culture Research Group.

On amazon USA and UK.

Black Dog Publishing writes: The Nuclear Culture Source Book is a resource and introduction to nuclear culture, one of the most urgent themes within contemporary art and society, charting the ways in which art and philosophy contribute to a cultural understanding of the nuclear. The book brings together contemporary art and ideas investigating the nuclear Anthropocene, nuclear sites and materiality, along with important questions of radiological inheritance, nuclear modernity and the philosophical concept of radiation as a hyperobject.

This book was published at the end of last year. 5 years after the Fukushima disaster. 30 years after Chernobyl. Even Fukushima sounds like a distant memory now but if we start to think in terms of nuclear deep time (where the safety of the storage of radioactive waste underground has to be guaranteed for the next hundreds of thousands of years if not far more), it actually happened less than a micro second ago.


Merilyn Fairskye, Plant Life (Chernobyl) Reactor 4

The Nuclear Culture Source Book contains artworks and essays that attempt to respond to the current nuclear age. This is an age characterized by an environment made radiological by the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. But also by the long term effects of the fallout from weapon testing and the thorny issue of long-term storage and occasional leaking of nuclear waste repositories. Add to the picture, a vast infrastructure involving mining, energy production, waste transport, etc.

How do we take responsibility for high-level waste that has to be kept safe from earthquakes, climate change, volcanic activity and container corrosion for up to one million years? Is this even possible? Do we risk forgetting this nuclear background when its vast timescale exceeds our own understanding of time? When radiation cannot be perceived directly by our human senses? Will we ever stopped being haunted by a threat that remains invisible, odourless, silent?

This book illustrates the role of art in creating a visual sensory framework that helps us grapple with nuclear culture. It also demonstrates that there are ways to approach, debate and articulate the many political, aesthetical and social issues surrounding a phenomenon that eclipses our standard notions of time, materiality and danger.


Thomson & Craighead, Temporary Index, 2016. Image: Arts Catalyst

The Nuclear Culture Source Book accompanies the exhibition Perpetual Uncertainty at the Bildmuseet in Umea, Sweden, but it offers far more than your usual exhibition catalogue. It presents more artworks than the exhibition does and it contains outstanding essays. I was particularly fascinated by a text in which artist and writer Susan Schuppli so eloquently exposes facts i had never heard about such as the spontaneous nuclear fission of an uranium deposit in Gabon two billion years ago or Sweden’s role in forcing the Soviet Union to officially announce the Chernobyl disaster.

Dark nuclear times have suddenly been brought back to our minds now that there’s an obtuse and raving lunatic in control of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. A book like The Nuclear Culture Source Book is not going to make us feel better about the future of the world but it might at least enable us to face it with a better informed and clearer head. I highly recommend that you browse the publication if you get a chance. It’s only January but i’m already pretty sure that this one is going to be among my favourite books of 2017.

A quick run through some of the works i discovered in the book:


Trevor Paglen, Trinity Cube. Installation view, Don’t Follow the Wind, 2015. Image via elephant mag

Trevor Paglen’s Trinity Cube brings together two key moments in the nuclear age. The Fukushima disaster and the early experiments of nuclear weapons. The outer layer of this jewel-like cube is made of irradiated broken glass collected from inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. The inner core of the sculpture is made out of Trinitite, the mineral created on 16 July, 1945 when the U.S. exploded the world’s first atomic bomb in New Mexico, heating the desert’s surface to the point where it sand turned into glass.

The cube can be found inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone as part of the Don’t Follow the Wind project. The artwork will be viewable by the public when the Exclusion Zone opens again, anytime between 3 and 30,000 years from the present.


Isao Hashimoto, 1945-1998

Isao Hashimoto made a simple but strikingly disturbing time-lapse animation of the 2,053 nuclear explosions on earth between 1945 and 1998, beginning with the Manhattan Project’s “Trinity” test near Los Alamos and concluding with Pakistan’s nuclear tests in May 1998. The video leaves out all tests since 1998.


Jane and Louise Wilson, The Toxic Camera, Konvas Autovat, 2012. Photo: likeyou


Jane and Louise Wilson, The Toxic Camera, 2012

The Toxic Camera is inspired by the film Chernobyl: A Chronicle of Difficult Weeks made by Vladimir Shevchenko in the days immediately following the accident. The film crew was the first in the disaster zone following the meltdown of the power plant on April 26, 1986. They shot continuously for more than 3 months, documenting the disaster’s impact on the local population and the cleanup efforts. Radiation levels were so high that parts of the film were marked with white blotches from radiation. Shevchenko died from radiation exposure before the film was released. As for his 35mm Konvas Avtomat camera, it was so highly radioactive that it had to be buried on the outskirts of Kiev.

The Wilsons’ film explores interconnecting stories from interviews conducted with Chernobyl survivors and with Shevchenko’s colleagues, 25 years after the incident.


Morris&Co fabric, Tudor Rose, 1883, used to upholster British nuclear submarine interiors. Photo: Nuclear Culture

The Morris & Co company’s ‘Strawberry Thief’ fabric was used to upholster British Nuclear Submarines from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s.
It seems that, like many other Victorian manufacturers, Morris & Co produced wallpapers rich in pigments such as locally mined arsenic green. However, due to the action of damp mould, the wallpapers emit poisonous gases which made the occupants of houses ill. William Morris apparently refused to believe that this was the case, and only reluctantly gave up producing such wallpapers.


Taryn Simon, Black Square XVII, 2006–ongoing. Void for artwork. Permanent installation at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow

In the year 3015, a black square made from vitrified nuclear waste will occupy a now empty space in at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. The nuclear waste is made of organic liquids, inorganic liquids, slurries, and chemical dusts from a nuclear plant in Kursk as well as from pharmaceutical and chemical plants in the greater Moscow region. Through a process of vitrification, radioactive waste will be compacted and solidified into a mass resembling polished black glass. This mass is currently stored in a concrete reinforced steel container, within a holding chamber surrounded by clay-rich soil, at the Radon nuclear waste disposal plant in Sergiev Posad, 72 km northeast of Moscow. It will remain there until its radioactive properties have lowered to levels deemed safe for human exposure. Cast within the black square is also a cylindrical steel capsule containing a letter to the future written by Taryn Simon.

The work is part of the Black Square series, a collection of objects, documents, and individuals within a black field that has precisely the same measurements as Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting of the same name.


Hilda Hellström, The Materiality of a Natural Disaster (video still), 2012. Image via cfile daily


Hilda Hellström, The Materiality of a Natural Disaster


Hilda Hellstrom, The Materiality of a Natural Disaster

Hilda Hellström’s The Materiality of a Natural Disaster is a set of radioactive food kitchen artifacts made from soil and clay taken from the exclusion zone surrounding the Daiichi nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan. The objects are irradiated, but within “allowable” levels. Hellström collected the irradiated soil with Naoto Matsumura, a former rice farmer and the last resident living inside the exclusion zone. The pots are accompanied by a video that documents Naoto Matsumura’s daily routine. He lives without water nor electricity on his land that won’t be farmable for at least thirty years.


Ken + Julia Yonetani, Crystal Palace, 2013. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations

Crystal Palace is comprised of 31 chandeliers, as many as there are nuclear nations in the world. The size of each chandelier reflects the number of operating nuclear plants in that nation. Antique chandelier frames have been refitted with uranium glass and UV lighting. Once switched on, the UV bulbs cause the glass beads to glow with an eerie green. The title of the work references the grandiose building designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, alluding to human ambition, technological development and the costs and consequences that inevitably accompany them.


Suzanne Treister, NATO 2004-ongoing. From the series NATO


Shuji Akagi, Fukushima Traces, 2011-2013. Photo via Osiris

Shuji Akagi’s Fukushima Traces chronicles the city’s decontamination process and life after the tsunami. His visual diary and annotations reveal governmental billboards of encouragement to the population, contaminated soil from playgrounds and sports fields dug up and covered with blue tarpaulin, trees stripped bare to remove contaminated leaves and branches, cracks on the road, etc.

In the book of the project, Akagi writes: “I would like to record as much of what happened within the sphere of my everyday life. No matter how the media would cover the shining city-scape in the glow of recovery, I want to document the lingering scars of my surroundings.”


Brian McGovern Wilson and Robert Williams, Cumbrian Alchemy, 2014

Cumbrian Alchemy, by Brian McGovern Wilson and Robert Williams, explores the connections between the nuclear industry of the Energy Coast in Cumbria and Lancashire and the archaeology and folklore of the region. The performance in the photo above was inspired by Thomas Sebeok‘s proposal in 1984 that an Atomic Priesthood of physicists, anthropologists, semioticians and other experts could be effective in communicating information over vast expanses of time.


smudge studio, Look Only at the Movement (route map), 2012-15


smudge studio, Look Only at the Movement (digital stills), 2012-15

In 2012, Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse from smudge studio followed the routes along which nuclear waste is moved in the American West from sites of waste generation to disposal stations. Equipped with a car-mounted video camera, they documented storage infrastructures and engineered landscapes such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where nuclear weapons research is conducted; the former site of a plutonium plant in Colorado; the Department of Energy’s TRANSCOM in Carlsbad, New Mexico, which monitors, 24/7 and via satellite, the transportation of nuclear waste in trucks; the uranium tailings disposal cell at Mexican Hat in Utah and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, America’s only deep geologic repository where nuclear waste is buried 1,250 feet below the surface in a salt dome, etc.

Look Only at the Movement exposes the encounters of two worlds that seem to ignore each other: the travelers on the American Highway and the network of nuclear waste transport, disposal cells, and sites of remediation. It also demonstrates how the movement of nuclear waste through public spaces is (and will long continue to be) a condition of contemporary life, landscape, and infrastructure design. Yet, citizens, architects, and engineers have virtually no models for how to design and maintain infrastructures capable of safely containing nuclear materials for the millions of years required by their potency.

The exhibition Perpetual Uncertainty is at the Bildmuseet in Umea (Sweden) until 16 April 2017.

Included in the exhibition: Inheritance, a precious heirloom made of gold and radioactive stones.

Related stories: High-Speed Horizons. Using sonic booms and nuclear energy to power aviation, Anecdotal radiations, the stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs, Relics of the Cold War.

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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.