This summer on the salt flats of south-west Bolivia, a pan-global group of artists, designers, architects and filmmakers are digging down through the caked up layers of sodium chloride. Their aim is to find a chemical that laid unused for 140 years after its discovery. A largely unwanted and impure element, good for little more than turning flames red and refusing to disconnect from aluminium.
This is lithium, and it is now the beating pulse of mass communication that lies at the heart of the green revolution. The group are the Unknown Fields Division, a collective that undertake artistic studies into the mechanisms of a modern world.
In Bolivia, the group will turn its attention to lithium, or ’grey gold’. The fascination in what is to a cursory glancer dirt stems from its seeming lack of worth. For years it was underrated, hoisted up with the elemental also rans. A neighbour of dull old beryllium. This all changed however, when a Stamford graduate, M Stanley Whttingham, suggested that the then nuclear associated chemical might serve better in batteries. After 30 years of development he proved right. Lithium is now the core component of every electronic mobile device and the future of electronic cars.
The goal of Unknown Field’s trip is to study lithium, to dissect its new found cultural significance and then, through written reports, films and sculptures, to communicate these findings to the wider world.
With all of Unknown Field’s work, there is a focus both on the end product, the smart-phone in your pocket, and its origins. For Bolivia, this is a found reserve that has added billions to the country’s economy. On a previous trip, it was a town turned upside down by global demand.
In 2014 Unknown Fields undertook a three week journey up the global supply chain, tracing back the path of consumer goods taken from the factories of China and into our homes. What they encountered was the brutal side effects of an industrial machine. Situated in northern most China, Baotou, or Deer City, was a settlement of 97,000 in 1950. It is now home to 2.5 million and is the world’s biggest supplier of rare earth minerals.
The environmental impact of such an unprecedented boom is severe. Vast refineries sprawl endlessly through the cities neon lit streets. Massive pipes erupt from the ground and run along roadways and pavements, arching into the air to cross roads like bridges. Despite such a man-made, synthetic dent, the work produced by Unknown Fields is free of condemnation.
One piece was formed from radioactive clay from the city’s polluted lake. It is a series of ceramic pots modelled on traditional ming vases, with each proportioned on the amount of toxic waste produced by the city’s use of different minerals.
Another is a video of visceral quality. It looks inside the factories, glimpsing the might of un-fathomably powerful machines. The effect is something similar to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.
The result of such considered work is profound. The approach is subtle, with the viewer coaxed rather than forced to reflect on the weighty topics. From the Texaco oil fields of the Ecuadorian Amazon to The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the subjects are massive, and a personal, emotive response undeniable.
All images via © Unknown Fields Division