Throw gold, copper, tantalum, and aluminum into a furnace, and what comes out? Usually, microstrip circuits or an ultra-durable capacitor. But in H / AlCuTaAu, the newest work from London-based artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, you receive the pure elements, nothing more. The piece of art was constructed from leftover hardware and tools from a bankrupt factory in the Netherlands. Van Balen and Cohen bought computers, remotes, and transistors as the factory liquidated, and they transformed their components back into their most elemental forms.
H / AlCuTaAu was commissioned by Amsterdam’s De Brakke Grond for its #Labor of the Day (#Arbeid van de dag) exhibition. A broad showcase on technology and the role that labor plays in its development, #Labor of the Day took a natural interest in H / AlCuTaAu. Given its physical character, the piece asks an important question: how much do we really know about the material components of our everyday technology, and what impacts do they leave on the Earth?
“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.”
Van Balen linked these processes to the Ta in H / AlCuTaAu, tantalum. The element is a principal component of capacitors used for videogame consoles and 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. The PlayStation 2’s release in 2000 hit manufacturing snags when tantalum prices skyrocketed as nations ruthlessly fought to gain control of the ore. “This conflict was 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.”
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 some call “the worst game ever made.” In a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the film's producers found their treasure: over 700,000 game cartridges buried under layers of concrete. None of the executives at the still existent Atari Europe could explain how or why the cartridges got there. Some classify this as amusing videogame lore, but consider the waste. Cartridges certainly 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?
Game companies still haven't come that far. Greenpeace gave Sony an overall score of 4.1 out of 10 for sustainability in its 2014 Guide to Greener Electronics. When evaluated on product life cycle, Sony received a whopping 0 out of 3. It's not just Sony: Nintendo has never received a score higher than 3 from Greenpeace.
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 minerals, ore, and energy. When Cohen and Van Balen visited the abandoned factory in the Netherlands, they found scraps of everyday life that filled the company’s abandoned space—a picture here, a list of phone numbers there. For Van Balen, everyone once present in the space had an intimate connection to the abandoned technology. “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.”