Material Supply Chains and Eco-traumas
A structured system or community can be understood through a process of scaling, as individual elements connect and evolve into a larger whole. I describe the process of art making as co-creating ecosystems. My fascination with scale through art (specifically sculpture and photography) comes from its ability to build momentum and coalitions: scaling actions and intentions offers liberatory potentials.
Photography has the ability to replicate and scale. It is a story, provocation, construction, fabrication, and truth. Unpacking parts of its complex material ecosystem has become an intimate subject of my research and practice. The medium slides precariously in and out of many ethical arguments for and against it: it can illuminate injustices while simultaneously exaggerating them through material processes.
Co-creating sculptures in public space allows for a more immediate type of scaling. The sculptures themselves involve displacing ecosystems and transforming industrial objects in order to revalue them. They unfold through a performance or collaboration and build meaning through the places they’re situated, while the photographs become their main form of communication beyond the site. In 2013, I wrapped almost all of my possessions together into large bundles to emphasize the weight of the books, photographs, clothes, electronics, and furniture I lived with. I wanted to reconsider the weight of their extraction, production, distribution, and trajectory around the world. Mineral extraction affects everything and everyone in its path: from contaminants in the air and waterways to runoff and tailings in the land to the ramifications of mining to life nearby. I wanted collections of objects bundled together to function as monuments to consumption.
Since I started the research into where and how the objects in my life were made, it has been impossible to ignore the systemic violence that goes hand-in-hand with the mass-produced tools I use. I fell into studying cobalt. It started with my camera, its batteries and sensor components. The US military is currently the largest buyer in the world of pure cobalt; it’s used in weapons and alloyed steel that can withstand intense heat. 63% of cobalt worldwide is purchased directly and indirectly through the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When a sensitive mineral does not have a diversified supply chain it’s deemed a security risk, so the US avoided classifying cobalt as a conflict mineral and instead classified it as a strategic mineral, and began mining it in Michigan at Eagle Mine in 2014 (and next year a mine will commence production in Idaho). From Eagle Mine, the mineral is shipped to Sudbury, Canada, where it’s smelted and alloyed. The alloyed materials are then shipped back. Some of it ends up next door at car factories in Detroit that now contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build drones. If we were to trace the complete loop, we might find that some of those drones are then delivered around the world to different operations in countries including the DRC, for part of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) program founded in 2007.
Last year, cobalt led me to dissect the supply chain of a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle (LMTV), made by Oshkosh Defense and used in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military vehicle was returned to the US in 2013 where it sat in a boneyard in New Jersey awaiting government auction. The minerals mined to make the vehicle were procured from over 40 countries, including Iraq. If we were to look into mineral maps of Afghanistan it may be no surprise that a US-led war there is ongoing. The LMTV became a stage from which to provoke questions. With a continual increase in extractive industries and an expanding military budget, how can we re-vision a future for transformative spaces in an increasingly militarized world? What happens when an object that embodies both the systemic violence represented by war and by climate change is manifested in a public space?
Supply chain maps, bureaucratic documents, even collages can be photographs in themselves that pull strands of different stories together. They can piece together ever-changing maps of logistics and minerals as a way to comprehend a system sublime in its scale and scope. Photography connects me to complexities and contradictions of a life largely removed from the supply chains that make it up: full of toxicities that I usually do not immediately see but may feel the aftermath of, the health impacts from—not to mention the psychological connection photography has to mapping, colonization, and militarization. While a captured image may occasionally be able to bring forth justice, with 1.7 trillion photographs recorded being taken last year, it is also one step in a process wrought with global injustice in terms of extractive industries and toxins. While we live under an economic system that externalizes costs to the environment and the poor, how can art engage other ways of bringing forth possibilities for being with (but not being paralyzed by) contradiction, while expanding our collective potentials for transformation?