Geologies of the Screen: Memory and Mattering
So far, all that has given colour to existence still lacks a history. The discovery of Rare Earth Element number 63, called Europium – or 'Eu' on the periodic table – at the turn of the 20th century, later revolutionised color TV screens in that its luminous phosphers produced the color red. Even today, Liquid Crystal Screens require between 0.5 and 1 gram of Europium oxide, one of the least abundant elements in the universe, which requires a purity exceeding 99.9%, in order to ignite, or even achieve a sufficiently rosy hue.
The mining of minerals thus mediates human seeing and memory. Europium is the material basis coursing through technology towards the enabling of colorful representation. It is also the very color of blood. This 'mattering' of color, memory and connectivity across our devices becomes a geology of the screen. It is a geology of transformation and the reorganization of stratospheres of earth into products. The human perception of the world is one of extraction, image making and its reproduction. If, as Edward Said suggests, the enterprise of empire depends upon the idea of having an empire and upon the relationships that render it visible, then the imagination and aspirations that drive technology become colonial forces that violently reshape societies. These relationships become intertwined and form new actualities: animal mineral deposits, Plastiglomerates washing up at shores, memories of abandoned circuits, pollution and waste sediment into future geologies.
The Periodic Table: the limits of what we knew
"Panta cwrei, oudei menei."
"Everything flows and nothing stays." Heraclitus
Not long ago it was believed that beyond a certain limit – that of the speed of light – the existence of new chemical elements was impossible. In 1950, Richard Feynman predicted that beyond element number 137, electrons would either crash into the nucleus or move faster than the speed of light, thus violating the laws of physics expressed in the theory of relativity.
Within the time frame of a few decades, however, with a series of new elements having been successively discovered, unveiled, and synthetised, the number of elements has expanded from 137 to 173. Concommitantly, the financialisation of nature has expanded the limits of what is commodifiable to hitherto unknown areas, entering the realm of the speculative. The knowledge mediated by the periodic table is largely reflective of unsolicited claims to the earth, mapping out areas of conflict and violence that exceed it both temporally and spatially.
Designed by Dimitri Mendeleev in 1869, the periodic table can be read as both an historical tool and a predictive one. Anticipating the constant incursion of further discoveries based on the predictability of elemental profiles, it is preemptive, making it a tool for calculating future economies as well as future conflicts. Within its cells we might uncover the squandering of Potosí, the Gulf Wars, the invasion of Iraq, the Congolese coltan mines – or perhaps the future poisoning and impoverishment of a place called La Mancha.
The impossibility of trading faster than a light particle traveling along a cable is increasingly challenged: flash trading at the speed of pico-seconds (one millionth of a millionth of a second) approximates matter from instability, and exposes the limits of neo-liberal capital to the barrier of the speed of light. Beyond this limit, investors fantasize with trading across time.
The speed of trading has evolved since the first distance trading technologies enabled the transmission of encoded information between two points within line of sight. In 1790, the semaphore telegraph connected the cities of Paris and Lille, separated by 230 km, in one hour, using an elaborate alphabet of symbols. With the advent of the electrical telegraph in 1840, visibility between two points became irrelevant, communications became faster and messages invisible. Trade entered a new domain, and the increase of speed would escalate until algorithmic computer trade started taking advantage of momentary price lapses between two distant points.
Chemical elements mutate into entirely different entities when transposed into the topology of the periodic table. Humans create value for and from the elements by entering them into a lexicon and developing for them this bespoke taxonomy. The table is therefore not merely a representational format, but an inaugural aesthetic that enables the capitalisation, and inevitably politicisation, of the elements. The relation between chemistry and human history had been observed by Marx, that found in it the confirmation of Hegel's laws of logic. While attending the lectures by Wilhelm von Hoffman a the Royal College of London, he sensed that the new discoveries in chemistry would provide the key to understand the transformation of nature by man and of man by nature.
The elements, once ancient and slumbering, have been transformed into the batteries and engines of the global economy. Overproduction and overconsumption of new technologies are symptomatic of this shift in temporalities, and mark a kind of excess that culminates in e-waste production.
Excess is measured in three parts: Firstly the bodies that excavate and process minerals are often part of surplus populations who are vulnerable to exploitation and maltreatment which results in their being physically “wasted”. Secondly the extent of damage to the environment is irreparable due to the violent nature of these projects. Excess can be weighed in the incalculable amount of waste incurred by both the processes and the products of mining.
Biosensors: Sonic Witnesses
We must turn to the beasts and flowers, not just as symbols and resources, but as co-residents and collaborators. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection
Can slow sonic violence be sounded, overheard, or anticipated? The Purple Gold soundtrack is multiscalar, oscillating between planetary sounds from outer space to ultrasonic cries emitted by thirsty plants; from mineral vibrations and chemical frequencies to the noisescape of mining machinery and corollary radioactive soil-sludge being dumped; from the roar of an endangered Iberian Lynx to sonified diagrams of proposed land mass extractions and saffron (also known as 'purple gold') cultivation. Purple Gold attempts to render an acoustic field of spatial, human, nonhuman, vegetal, machine, microbial and chemical 'actors' from La Mancha, relationally, in order to speculate upon what a deep future might sound like (or lack, if rare earth element [REE] mining proceeds and deforms the agriculturally prolific region). The compilation nods to NASA’s infamous Golden Record, an extensive phonographic anthology of human and natural sounds, which was sent on two Voyager spacecraft missions in 1977 as a 'greeting' in case extraterrestrial life should be encountered while in orbit—instantiating what Fred Moten terms 'phonic anticipation,' or a form of 'knowledge of the future in the present.'
Central to Purple Gold is the concept of a biosensor, or biological sensor, which uses physiochemical elements to detect various (often toxic) presences in biological substances by transduction into electrical signals. Can we think of plants, bacteria and soil as phylogenetic witnesses of past, present and future conditions; as spokespersons, even? Can we 'read' nonhuman vibrations as forms of signalling or signification, especially in relation to ecological toxicity? Can listening to such vibrational frequencies actually indicate levels of health or trauma, even if little knowledge yet exists in ecotoxicology about how cellular mechanisms of toxified plants are affected by REE pollution? We posit that the very prehensive capacities of biosensors, when activated conceptually and materially, would offer a set of adept and adaptive ways of hearing—and possibly preventing—invasive and toxifying environmental transfigurations in advance of their taking place.
Purple Gold track list
T1 The Wind from Nowhere
T3 Panorama 3° 18' W, 38° 38’ N
T4 Stunted Hydrophototropism
T5 Unmagnetised Techno Fossils
T6 The Last Mineral
A hypergeography allows the viewer to meander through various layers of meaning and interpretation, as well as to dwell momentarily on instances that highlight the geopolitical and economic interests that coalesce in the La Mancha region. Indeed, both Spanish and EU official discourses posit REE as 'strategic' raw materials that are essential to helping Europe build an efficient, competitive, high-tech economy, one which can spur a renaissance of European industry. Moreover, they can play a key role in helping the European Union achieve its industrial, climate and energy targets. With Europe depending entirely on imports from China, to find these critical materials in Europe is of the essence. Against this official rhetoric of delusive self-sufficiency and hostile policies, one has to wonder what ultimately motivates the EU to promote and subsidise the prospecting of REE despite the high environmental price of their extraction. Would spinning the wheel of the financial market have anything to do with it?
Following the episodic nature of La Mancha's most famous literary narrative, the tale of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, these moments evade and neglect to form one cohesive or linear narrative. Pop-up features disrupt the landscape to emphasize this fragmentation and allude to the speculative nature of value generation; the myths that fuel desire and allow the financialisation of elusive matter (that which has not yet been mined) to occur. Pop-ups, often making grand and exaggerated claims that are rarely legitimate—one click leading to a ceaseless barrage that ultimately leads nowhere. Thus this series, impeding on the surface of …the place of which I have no desire to call to mind highlights the tendency for political and economic rhetoric to obfuscate what are in reality harmful processes, while suggesting and acknowledging a degree of futility in such gestures of resistance as well.
…the place of which I have no desire to call to mind looks to the pending extraction of Rare Earth Elements (REE) in La Mancha, Spain, leading the viewer on a quixotic passage that weaves through the complex and often competing cultural and environmental narratives of mineral extraction.
A hypergeography reveals various layers of meaning and interpretation, allowing one to navigate and dwell momentarily on instances that highlight tensions and ruptures produced when geopolitical interests descend on and impact physical local environments.
The colonization of territory begins with the imagining of that land and its natural elements as property that can be harnessed and claimed. Resisting forces of exploitation, therefore, requires an even more potent fantasy. Following the episodic nature of La Mancha's most famous literary tale, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, the moments in …the place of which I have no desire to call to mind evade and neglect to form one cohesive or linear narrative, serving instead as a series of thoughts and provocations from which an alternate story might be produced.