Throw gold, copper, tantalum, and aluminum into a furnace, and what do you get? In most cases, you’d get an ultra-durable capacitor or maybe a robot. But in H / AlCuTaAu, the newest work from London-based artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, you get the bare elements, nothing more. The work is a reconstructed ore that looks like a Radiant Lifegem from Dark Souls II, except updated for the 21st century. The pair of artists melted down and recast an array of workplace objects into their most simple elements. But this artificial rock begs the question: how much do we really know about the physical production and repercussions of consumer technology?
H / AlCuTaAu was commissioned by Amsterdam’s De Brakke Grond for its #Labor of the Day (#Arbeid van de dag) exhibition. Opening up big questions about technology and the role that labor plays in its development, #Labor of the Day took a natural interest in H / AlCuTaAu. The rock-shaped object was constructed from leftover hardware and tools from a bankrupt factory in the Netherlands. Van Balen and Cohen bought its computers, remotes, and transistors at auction and transformed them back into their most elemental forms.
“Our recent piece is exploring what technology is materially made of, and it is concerned with production and materials in a very broad sense,” Van Balen said. “One of our concerns and interests is that many of the materials and processes are not just technical or physical processes. They are cultural processes, but they also very rapidly become political and ethical processes.”
An example of how gadgets have unexpected political and ethical ramifications: The Ta in H / AlCuTaAu is tantalum, a principal component in capacitors that we find in videogame consoles, is usually mined from a black ore called coltan. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is dotted with coltan reserves, and the desire to exploit coltan was a suspected motivation of Ugandan and Rwandan intervention into the Second Congo War from 1998-2003. “It’s one of the biggest genocides in the past century,” Van Balen said, “and we’re interested in the political implications of the bare material as such.”
This brings up important questions about the devices that populate our offices and homes. The PlayStation 2’s release in 2000 hit manufacturing delays when tantalum prices skyrocketed as nations ruthlessly fought to gain control of the ore. All of which begs the question: Where does our technology really come from, and what impact does it leave?
Back in April, a documentary film company went in search of up to a million discarded copies of E.T. The Extraterrestial, the infamous game for the Atari2600 from 1982 that has been called “the worst game ever made.” None of the executives at the still existent Atari Europe have a clue how or why the cartridges got there.
This tidbit of videogame lore is normally chuckled over, but consider the sheer waste here. Cartridges aren’t biodegradable. If nobody wanted to play E.T. the Extraterrestial and Atari overestimated its scaling for the product, is “burying every copy in a hole” the smartest method of disposal?
Admittedly, it was the 1980s. But game companies haven’t come all that far. Greenpeace gave Sony a 4.1/10 score in its 2014 Guide to Greener Electronics. And when it came to product life cycle, Sony received a whopping 0 out of 3. Nintendo has never received a score higher than 3 from Greenpeace.
Something’s amiss. We expect high standards of sustainability and fair-practice business procedures from our grocery stores, clothiers, and energy providers. Why should videogame companies be left out of the equation? Technology doesn’t abstract from the physical world. Software needs hardware to exist.
And this is about more than just thinking about minerals, ore, and energy. It’s about people. When Cohen and Van Balen constructed H / AlCuTaAu, they found more than just abandoned products and hardware. They found the scraps of everyday life that filled the company’s abandoned space—a picture here, a list of phone numbers there. For Van Balen, it was problematic to simply separate ourselves from the tools and gadgets that we use. “Interspersed with all the objects that we mined were snapshots of daily life,” he said. “It was a layer of a much more personal story that used to exist there, but had disappeared entirely.”