Vitalist Materialism—Life Mining is a concept that updates the humanistic bases of Marxism, dialectics, and Eurocentric discourse. What the concept of Vitalist Materialism (departing from Rosi Braidotti’s posthumanist theories) raises is a re-enactment of Marxist aesthetics in a context of technological studies. This article aims to create a critical basis for the practical development on the expository level to reformulate the role of contemporary art and the current museum. Based on art and technology relations, the article focuses on practices beyond pure digital art, based on innovation and scientific evolutionary progress, and here the artistic-technological practice is put in the relational context of the posthuman, presenting Vitalist Materialism as a critical aesthetic and new geopolitics of media art.
Vitalist Materialism emerged during the nineteenth century when vitalist theories of life were contrasted with mechanistic hypotheses regarding the nature of life. According to philosophers and biologists, Materialism understood life as inherent to organisms and a mechanical function that could be scientifically explained. Vitalism formed a cohesive view of the world as one living organism in which the property of life was present in all living things, but not inherent.
After repudiating atomism, Margaret Cavendish described a new theory of matter, Vitalist Materialism, according to which there are “three degrees of matter: two self-moving and one inanimate.” The different inherent motions of matter give rise to particular creatures and phenomena. Cavendish’s development of Vitalist Materialism over time, between her first version (1653) and her last (1668), differed in the claim that parts of nature have free will, which was only transversally mentioned in her early presentations but became explicit in her later works. Similarly, Cavendish’s theory of occasional causation was not fully worked out until her last texts.
More recently, studies of Vitalist Materialism by Jane Bennett use art and politics to analyze Spinoza’s concept of vitality in the human and non-human. To this definition, Jane Bennett adheres Althusser’s aleatory materialism and Latour’s description of objects as expressive actants and the concept of agency in Actor-Network Theory. Jane Bennett also takes Heidegger’s incalculability of the thing, Foucault’s productive power, and works with the concept of extreme perception, originally in Bergson as a subtractive perception process. Jane Bennett also develops categories of Ian Hacking’s philosophy of science, according to transcendental nominalism (also dynamic nominalism or dialectical realism). Nowadays, Jane Bennett is one of the New Materialism’s leading thinkers, who argues that non-human (and particularly non-biological) matter is imbued with a liveliness that can exhibit distributed agency by forming assemblages of human and non-human actors. Bennett’s “thing-power” exemplifies the ability of objects to manifest a lively kind of agency. She explains: “Thing-power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of aliveness independence, constituting the outside of our own experience.” Bennett also builds on the ideas of early twentieth-century critical vitalists, as well as the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, to bring together materiality, affect, and vitalism.
In the same direction, Pamela Richardson-Ngwenya’s studies state: “The interactions and miscommunications involved between different vital agencies brought her to express the possibility of a way of communicating through more-than-human materialities.” Her vitalist geographical imagination is receptive and open to the liveliness of materialities and the significance of relational becomings. Following Pamela Richardson-Ngwenya, the perspective of Vitalist Materialism is aligned with geographical studies, introducing the references to use in a comparison between human actors and geographical entities, also reformulating geopolitics in a more inclusive media art discourse.
Another author who questions principles of vitalism is Alexander Wilson, who argues how new materialism’s goal come to terms with the non-living origin of life. In this sense, Alexander Wilson puts forward the question of how to recognize how dead materials are always in some sense incipiently alive. According to Wilson: “This vitalist position is also known as a panpsychist neomaterialism, which emerges from the recently developed theory of consciousness as integrated information in Tononi.”
This consideration of dead materials in the chain of life’s production is connected to media archaeology and reverse engineering consisting of the deconstruction of physical industrial processes in the assembly of technology. Both conform a methodology towards understanding materialism within an analyst perspective, which compiles an extensive philosophical explanation in the relationship between life, minerals, biology, nature, and technology. Following considerations of Vitalist Materialism about dead materials, discussion of minerals, mineralogy and extractivism bring to light how the Earth is a resource in the age of the Anthropocene, a standing reserve for extraction policies.
This posthumanist conception of matter produces a re-engagement with the material realities of everyday life and broadens towards geopolitical and socioeconomic structures. Vitalist Materialism implies a perspective of the ethics of life in a more holistic, non-mechanical approach, such as it happens in organicism and posthumanism. Vitalist Materialism also develops according to the concept of agential realism in Karen Barad.
Rosi Braidotti represents another position in Vitalist Materialism, which revises ideas from poststructuralist theory. Rather than Giorgio Agamben’s bare life (zoē), Braidotti’s re-reading of Spinoza and Deleuze and Guattari lead her to formulate a zoē that is the potentiality of all matter to form transversal connections or networks with all other matter. In Homo Sacer (1995), Agamben argues that: “The Western biopolitical distinction between political and non-political life (what he calls bios and zoē, respectively) can be traced to antiquity.” It is the connection of sovereign power to biopower that distinguishes for Agamben a crucial cut between beings with no legal status, humans included, and beings with the privilege of legal rights. So, Braidotti revises critical vitalism and biopolitics alike to argue that posthuman subjectivity is a zoē with an immanent potential for self-assembly along transversals, or the tendency of all living matter to form associations with other material systems. Posthuman subjectivity, therefore, raises important ethical questions, since it is neither bound to the individual subject nor singularly human. Moreover, this research takes the critical point of view against biogenetic capitalism, which transforms life into an economic resource to control under data gathering policies.
To finish this introduction to Vitalist Materialism, Salomé Voegelin’s words about Sonic Materialism should be highlighted. According to Voegelin: “Sonic Materialism joins a current debate on new materialism by developing via sound and listening the idea of materialism as a transformation that reconsiders an anthropocentric worldview without bestowing objects with mythical self-determination, and that accounts for the object’s autonomous agency rather than placing it in a mathematical frame.” Voegelin suggests that: “While a masculine new materialism insists on the absence of the human to get to the unthoughtful, and thus ultimately proposes the end of philosophy in its mathematical probability, a sonic-feminine new materialism brings us through the creative performance of matter and language to the seemingly unthinkable, to perform it not in words but on the body and on things: doing, digging, and gardening as a re-vocalization and re-physicalization of theory through its inter-being with things.”
A Curatorial Proposal
Entering an age of mass extinction brought on by industrial production excesses and consumption, technological exploitation and obsolescence become transformative situations of the human, social, and natural systems. Economically and ecologically, these processes face disruption on one hand, but a disaster on the other. If planned obsolescence makes new devices appear on the market, the same disruptive economy implies a massive environmental catastrophe, which involves transforming the landscape, as technology and innovation are directly connected to resources’ exploitation and waste.
However, DIY artists, hackers, makers, and critical agents reflect on technology’s role in reshaping the world’s economic and ecologic horizons. Following Félix Guattari’s Three Ecologies, an integral force and a critical proposal for promoting alternatives to the techno-capitalist industrial society is formed by: “…social ecology, mental ecology and environmental ecology.” Therefore, art is considered an alternative model, with the transformation of the industrial process, which is also happening in individual entrepreneurs. However, in this same context of late capitalism (or techno-capitalism), any alternative practice is also subsumed in the economic system, as Maurizio Lazzarato expresses through concepts of precariousness, intellectual work, immaterial labor, and new subjectivities, which are totally under the influence of cybernetics and computer control. There is almost no anti-capitalist approach because this requires the structural organization of political and economic systems founded on networks, servers, and other technological deployments. Technology has been created under a scrupulous dependence on the scientific objectifying of hyper-structures (technoscientific laboratories, for instance), which result in being extremely hard to disbelieve, doubt, and dissent, leaving the confronters impressed, without power and resources to contest and dispute their authority, as Bruno Latour details in his explanation about counter-laboratories. According to Latour: “The dissenters cannot do less than the authors. They have to gather more forces in order to untie what attaches the spokesmen and their claims. This is why all laboratories are counter-laboratories just as all technical articles are counter-articles. So the dissenters do not simply have to get a laboratory; they have to get a better laboratory.”
Besides, in Jonathan Kemp’s words, this makes alternatives subsumed to capital. Nevertheless, there is still an in potentia within capital to cultivate rival forms of production based around what is called, in Kemp’s words, “commons-based peer production (or social production).” This is based in hacking and open-source methodologies, but their arguments consistently fail to surmount the structural similarities with late capitalism. The labor invested in producing free software is given publicly. Then, since the efforts and end-products of cooperation and collaborative production can be readily appropriated and framed by capital, and it is again an expression of a new form of labor rather than a rival to capital itself, therefore any rival form ultimately operates in a manner subsumed under capital’s organizational form.
Although subsuming processes in late capitalism, Benkler states: “Individuals are using their newly expanded practical freedom to act and cooperate with others in ways that improve the practiced experience of democracy, justice, and the development of a critical culture and community.” Collaboration and self-organization are shared across both business and free software/open hardware. In this regard, the collaborative practices at the intersection between art, science, and technology and making use of hacking and DIY methodologies are set to criticize the phenomena of planned obsolescence produced by ICT companies and the dynamics of desire towards technological devices by consumers.
This article is contextualized along with theories and aesthetics that follow recent discussions concerning cultural politics of the environment, ecological contexts of contemporary media, and debates concerning the Anthropocene. Furthermore, Nathan Ensmenger’s An Environmental History of Computing understands “how computing intersects with the environment, from the mining of minerals essential to the construction of digital devices, to the massive amounts of water and energy used to generate virtual commodities, to the pollution associated with the production and disposal of electronics.”
The primary focus and interests of this research rely on ecological transition, geopolitics, the posthuman, the human-nature dichotomy, biodiversity, cultural diversity, self-sufficiency, race and gender, and intersections between ecology, feminism, and practices that challenge ways of engaging the world of humans and non-humans. Likewise, the discourse is similar to curatorial projects developed in the framework of Anthropocene theory about how technology is affecting the environment. This theoretical reference is core to this research, which is continually questioning the relationship between technology and nature.
Moreover, the interest in mineral materials fits with media archaeology theory by Jussi Parikka, Benjamin Gaulon’s project Recyclism, as well as the collaborative practices at the intersection between art hack practice and DIY production.
Vitalist Materialism—Life Mining analyzes natural resources exploitation, is interested in the Anthropocene, and denounces necropolitics from the First World to the ex-colonies. Knowing that all ICT needs minerals to be created, the dependence of any piece of hardware computing on the source of natural wealth that are minerals is evident. Currently, computers need rare minerals and minerals. An investigation into the production channels of these technologies reveals that most of the minerals come from ex-colony countries that have been mistreated by colonialist policies. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is currently suffering from post-national politics based on imperialist capitalism that is intensely technological, and resulting from these policies are child exploitation, the emergence of guerrillas who control these mines, and the displacement of people, with the consequent famine and unhygienic living conditions. In Congo, red mines are not regulated by the government of Congo. On the contrary, green mines are those that are subjected to government controls and issue certificates of authentication to EU and US corporations. Curiously, most minerals arriving in the First World have not been issued a certificate.
For example, for years, Apple sourced cobalt and tantalum—which are used to power lithium-ion batteries—from Congo. Only after extensive reports of child labor, worker injuries, and worker deaths did Apple stop sourcing these materials from small mines in Congo specifically. Following this example, here I use a quote from Marx, who argued that: “...commodities do not derive their value from their use. That is because by definition, they are not necessary for basic survival. Instead, they derive value from the invisible labor that goes into making them.” Following with the same discussion, David Michaud, a mining consultant, states that: “The iPhone 6 was found to contain 0.014g of gold, 0.66g (0.5%) of tin and 0.025g of tantalum. There were no precious metals detected in any larger quantities, maybe a dollar or two.”
Furthermore, a lot of the precious stuff is difficult to get and mined in places with little to no regulation and dangerous, even deadly conditions. The iPhone is .02 percent tungsten, for instance, which is commonly mined in Congo and used in vibrators and on screens’ electrodes. Cobalt, a crucial part of the batteries, is mined in Congo, too. Gold is the most valuable metal inside the device. However, in 2010, a financial reform bill passed in the US, aimed at discouraging companies from using conflict minerals from Congo. Brian Merchant adds: “Apple uses dozens of third-party suppliers to produce components found in devices like the iPhone, and all of those use their third-party suppliers to provide yet more parts and raw materials. (…) However, this system means most of our electronics begin with thousands of miners working in often brutal conditions on nearly every continent to dredge up the raw elements that make its components possible.”
This connects with Jussi Parikka’s media archaeology theory. This high-dependence of the computational on minerals transforms the geographical condition into a geological dimension. According to Parikka: “The interest of the materials lies in the so-called materialization of the media, where geophysical elements express the scarcity of resources, the technological regimes, the geopolitics of labor, the planetary excavations, and the aftereffects of electronic waste.” Moreover, media archaeology proposes a new understanding of linear history, ensuring that the category of deep time is affecting media archaeology devices. According to Parikka, the materiality of progress is not linear as rationalism proposes, but a link between geological eras, understanding how most of the minerals and geological resources are the result of long-time processes.
Vitalist Materialism—Life Mining offers a critical position in terms of planned obsolescence in a techno-capitalist system and its unsustainable model of innovation. Allying with Technological Sovereignty and the Degrowth Movement, this research proposes an ethics of autonomy in regard to the logic of late capitalism.
According to Technological Sovereignty (TS): “Autonomous servers, decentralized networks, encryption, peer-to-peer networks, alternative virtual currencies, the sharing of knowledge, meeting places, and cooperative work constitute a wide range of initiatives already underway towards Technological Sovereignty.”
So, if the Technological Sovereignty movement proposes an ethical model for the ICT infrastructures’ use, the materialist part of the project is defended through an alliance with the Degrowth Movement. The latter proposes: “an autonomous perspective towards capitalism and the globalized world, through artivism, the care revolution, and climate justice based in the environmental movement and radical ecological democracy, proposing practices of food sovereignty.” Besides, degrowth practices apply the principles of the free software movement and policies of the commons, towards a solidarity economy and a universal basic income.
For example, according to Graham-McLay, we can see these as an influence in New Zealand’s policies: “The center-left government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sets its priorities in a budget that is moving away from more traditional bottom-line measures like productivity and economic growth and instead focusing on goals like community and cultural connection and equity in well-being across generations.”
Through this research, many current environmental issues have been highlighted, which are a result of technological production. Therefore, e-waste and planned obsolescence appear to be one actor more in the IT chain production. Artists are considering working with these materials through “the creative practices of recycling and its possible applications in different productive fields—including art, of course—but also product and fashion design, architecture, object-data integration practices in the Internet of Things, and augmented realities.”
So, how do artists and curators work and address all these matters? How do creative practices denounce the exploitation of natural resources?
This research describes different artists and collaborators developing environmental and sustainable media art practices related to mining, DIY, and hacking OS/OH.
For example, Tin Dozic’s Goldrush focuses on the presence of gold in personal computers and suggests “an alchemical activity—the extraction of this valuable metal from electronic waste that was once also a status symbol. Computer parts are dissolved, and the gold is purified by aqua regia, resembling an alchemist’s process as old as the eighth century.”
Along the same lines, BJ Nilsen’s work UGOL is “part of a more massive project called ORE, an art project revolving around mining and its impact on society and cultural relevance. UGOL touches upon the logistical side of coal, in this case where coal travels by train from the Kuznetsk Basin in southwestern Siberia via Murmansk and from there reloaded and shipped out internationally.”
Alejandra Pérez Núñez, with the artwork Antarctica 1961-1996, presents a sound installation initially commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome (MACRO) for the exhibition Otros Sonidos, Otros Paisajes. The work is described as a contribution “to the displacement of dominant forms of human ‘truth’ in which the imperceptibility of the non-human remains inaccessible and insignificant. Moreover, the artist locates the mineral resources in Antarctica on a map as a tool to point out where those are. Due to factors of extreme climate change, the scientific explorations in the South Pole area are becoming more interested in the emergence of the Rocky Mountains, which will be used shortly as extraction sites for the benefit of post-technological capitalism.”
There are some other great examples of resource exploitation related to colonialist narratives. For example, This is Congo, a film by photographer and director Daniel McCabe, who states: “The film delves into the illegal mineral trade and cyclical violence marring the Democratic Republic of Congo. The film begins in 2012, as a rebellion mounts in the North Kivu region and closely follows the rise, tumult, and fall of the conflict and its direct effects on the nation and its inhabitant over a three-year journey.”
Moreover, Tatjana Gorbachewskaja and Katya Larina’s work Nikel Materiality is about: “Nikel through the prism of the unique material substances that it has created. The story of Nikel is that of a place that transformed the natural environment, seemingly no longer dependent on its geographical, geological, or atmospheric attachments to the Earth. The materiality of the artificial organism of the city started to interact directly with the natural conditions of the unique Arctic climate and ecosystem, forcing Nikel’s artificial materiality to adapt to survive.”
Another artist denouncing abusive practices of exploitation in late capitalism, rooted in colonialism, is Dani Ploeger. According to him, his work “Hi-Tech Wound (2015) results from a collaboration with a group of scientists and cultural theorists with whom the artist participated in an e-waste recycling job on a dump site in Lagos, Nigeria. Afterwards, he suffered a wound to his arm. It got infected: electronic waste performed on the artist’s body.”
Catherine Hyland, the author of Lithium Mining | Atacama Desert, states that “[She] traveled to the salt flats of the Atacama Desert in Chile to photograph the environmentally contentious production of lithium—the metal used to power everything from smartphones to Teslas. Chile is the only country in the world where water resources and management are entirely privatized, and SQM, the lithium company photographed by Hyland in her series, currently owns the water rights for the region. Companies like SQM are increasingly at the center of environmental debates around water, accused of exploiting the natural resource in regions that are in drought or prone to water scarcity. To create lithium, they are drying out rivers, streams, and wetlands.” This work is an astounding photographic documentary about non-human mineral elements and how the policies of extraction are jeopardizing the environment, being correlated to anthropocentric and Western thought that establishes barriers between the human and non-human. From a post-anthropocentric and posthuman perspective, inclusivity and ethics must reinforce egalitarian practices in between species, but the concept must be broadened to mineral and soil elements, not just the non-human understood as animals and plants. Deforestation and mining are active agents in the forest and landscape that determine life and our biodiversity. Focusing on the issue of mining, deforestation, and land-endangering practices, posthumanism must address the exploitative relations of late capitalism still benefiting from abusive and invasive colonialist policies.
Matterlurgy by Radiophony 29 is a site-specific performance that was presented on an abandoned copper mine, Klovakärrin kaivos in Finland. According to the authors, the work combines “performance, radio broadcast, installation, and sound to foreground the social, political, and material genealogies of copper and the radio. This iteration was thirty minutes in duration and pivoted around different areas of the mine. The performance included the sonification of rocks, digital text, copper objects, spoken word, sounds from the environment, and live broadcast.”
Another example, denouncing capitalism is the work by The Otolith Group, Anathema (2011). It is described as “a contemporary Fantasia on the notion of the network and its inherent instability, where the organic networks of human relations and the crystalline lattices of silicon-based technologies intertwine and often tangle. Anathema re-imagines the microscopic behavior of liquid crystals undergoing turbulence as a sentient entity that possesses the fingertips and the eyes enthralled by the LCD touch-screens of communicative capitalism. Anathema can be understood as an object-oriented video that isolates and recombines the magical gestures of dream factory capitalism.”
Within the same aesthetics, Semiconductor’s work Crystallised is defined as “a series of digital mineral crystal animations generated and animated by sound recordings of ice crystals. Each structure takes on a different form, growing and evolving in exquisite detail. Mineral crystals reveal atomic structures in their rawest form and provide a window into the make-up of the physical world, where simple shapes come together to create intricate and complex formations. With this series of works, Semiconductor draws a parallel between these basic molecular structures and the building blocks of the digital world, which has become the prism through which we increasingly experience reality. The animations suggest pre-ordained patterns and order that appear to underlie everything and lead us to question our experiences of the very fabric of our world.”
In the same direction, working with the digital, Greg Orrom Swan presents A Measure of Minerality (2018). The artist describes it as follows: “In this cave-like installation a combination of atomized particles of phosphate rock, fertilizer, and mammal bone mineral rotate and flow past one another perpetually. Patterns form and reform, molding, a reference to the cycles we are part of, woven with and about.”
Also working with minerals is the artwork by Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen. H / AlCuTaAu (2014), which is introduced by the artists as “precious metals and stones which were mined out of technological objects and transformed back into mineral form. The artificial ore was constructed out of gold (Au), copper (Cu), tantalum (Ta), aluminum (Al) and whetstone; all taken from tools, machinery and computers that were sourced from a recently bankrupt factory.”
Remarkably similar, is the work by The Crystal World Open Laboratory, at CTM - Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien (2012), during Transmediale, presented Martin Howse, Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan experiments, with Ralf Baecker showing his installation, Irrational Computing. During the Lab, “Participants and team undertake the recovery of rare and precious metals from a variety of electronic junk. In a further room, Baecker’s irrational computers consisted of five interlinked modules that use the different electrical and mechanical particularities and characteristics of crystals and minerals and, through their networking, form a kind of primitive macroscopic signal processor.”
Moreover, this research refers to diverse curatorial practices and exhibitions. Another contemporary attempt to exhibit practices related to Vitalist Materialism –Life Mining is the curatorial project The Metallurgical Ouroboros (2018), with Stephen Cornford, Caroline Jane Harris, Samantha Lee, Victor Seaward and Rustan Söderling. The curatorial text explains: “The materiality of technology is bio/geo-logical and nature is fully intertwined in processes of both its production and consumption. The nature of transmutation sees the technological artifact becoming the philosopher’s stone - the archetypal symbol of alchemy - turning base metals and minerals into a new gold. [...] This process has created a (un)natural Ouroboros created by entangled copper network cables, a modern-day life cycle to be melted down in the cultural foundry.”
Finally, the article would like to mention the exhibition curated by this same author Sounding DIY III. Vitalist Materialism. Part of a curatorial residency at HOP Projects, Folkestone (England), the exhibition presented the works of the artists Greg Orrom Swan (video); Erin Sexton (video); Claude Heiland-Allen (projection); Stephen Cornford (print); BJ Nilsen (audio) and xname (sculptures). As written in the curatorial text: “The exhibition relies on the so-called DIY and handmade culture that currently sets as an exponent of the free culture and open source. The exhibition focuses on the practice of hacker and maker at the intersection of art, science and technology, but inspired by sound art and music production. The development of these artworks and hacked prototypes subvert the inertia of the capitalist system. In this shift of production logic, the sphere of techno-capitalism is presented as an unsustainable and abusive threat.”
Laura Netz (b. Barcelona, 1982) is a curator, artist, and researcher. She is currently an MPhil student at CRiSAP – UAL, where she studies the new tendencies in curatorial practices in sonic arts. In 2006, she graduated with a degree in art history (University of Barcelona). Subsequently, she obtained a Master in Cultural Practices and New Media Art (University Ramon Llull). Netz attended the curating course at Central Saint Martins, UAL. In 2011, attended the professional course on New Media Curating led by Beryl Graham (University of Sunderland). As a curator, she has taken part in many international events such as exhibitions, workshops, conferences, publications, and concerts in Spain, Portugal, UK, Mexico, Colombia, Canada, Serbia, Russia, Hong Kong, the U.S., and Brazil. Among the collaborations, she has developed projects with various institutions such as Fonoteca Nacional de Mexico, MACBA Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona, CCCB Centre of Contemporary Culture Barcelona, MOTA Museum of Transitory Art, and ISEA International Symposium of Electronic Arts. She has worked with the following new media festivals: ArtFutura, MUTEK, and Alphaville. She collaborates with artists such as Locus Sonus, Scanner, Roy Ascott, Konrad Becker, Fran Illich, Milo Taylor, and Arcan-gelo Constantini, among much more.
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