Iain Ball
Sleek Magazine, Spring 2015
Iain Ball’s multifaceted works explore methods to combat feelings of alienation, loss of place and identity resulting from our current technological revolution. Drawing together science-fiction, corporate aesthetics and an astringent sculptural vocabulary, Ball is one of seventeen artist artists to feature in Rare Earth at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna – an exhibition exploring the material basis for the most technologically developed weapons and tools – a class of 17 ‘rare earth’ elements from the periodic table found in everything from mobile phones to computer hard drives.

What was the impulse behind your ENERGY : PANGEA / Rare Earth Sculpture Project? What, specifically, brought you to rare earth elements as a topic?  

ENERGY PANGEA began in late 2010 as an umbrella term to encompass a new set of content that I had begun to focus on, which facilitated a shift in my attention away from the very goth and macabre technological/primitivist filters inherent in earlier projects Old Earth Objects (2010) and the representation of extreme dystopian geopolitical crisis and environmental catastrophe in POST.CONSUMER.CULT (2010).

Energy Pangea sought to become the aesthetic antithesis of these projects, focusing on a biocentric speculative future which aims at a rethinking of environmental aesthetics and demands a reboot of attention towards ecology, free-energy and possible worlds and is somewhat optimistic in its portrayal, and works as an adaptation or transformation of these areas. The term “Energy Pangea” itself is also intended to be highly adaptive and indeterminate, so the possibilities for the project and what it means or does is always in a state of becoming.  

The Rare Earth Sculpture Project then developed inside the Energy Pangea incubator. The list of rare earth elements is used as a structural container and I began developing a sculptural system for each rare earth element. It is sculptural in the sense that it explores the amorphous qualities of the way that things are networked together, whilst also presenting a central object or object-array. This object or hybrid-object is used to bind together all of the narratives and content, and works to engage and co-create further connections and adaptations.

  Why choose to work through the issue/topic of rare earth in series? Is there an intellectual or critical trajectory running through the various sculptures that make it up?

In many ways it is no different from deciding to make a series of large canvases or glazed ceramic objects. The medium or subject has particular qualities that I am interested in exploring and experimenting with by transmuting or pushing it as far as I can go. I’m particularly interested in attaching seemingly unrelated or impossible and unconnected narrative associations to each rare earth element and then creating a relationship with that convergent content by making some kind of (art) object which becomes something like an energy transducer device.

  It also works a bit like a parody or reversal of research practice in that the associations, connections and meanings often come afterwards rather than before. The initial choices can seem irrational, manic, intuitive and random, but the brain keeps finding patterns and creating meaning from this randomness. The meaning is fabricated alchemically and then becomes circumvented into its material reality.

  On the face of it, engaging with a specific set of materials/elements – with well-known applications – seems like a discrete, contained agenda. And yet, your works from the series seem to involve fiction and a healthy dose of humour. Why is this so? What is the function of (science) fiction in the project?

In exploring wild speculations, possible worlds or random outcomes, my aim is to draw attention to the weird reality we have now, the potential for imagining a way out of monotony and desiring (or designing) the next crisis or utopia. This sounds quite old-school but I think the point is that we always accumulate new perspectives and find new approaches as technological change acts towards a disruption of pre-existing paradigms.

  In Neodymium (2011), for instance, I was initially fascinated by the Maitreya solar cross (a Buddhist symbol) and wanted to do something with it. I also wanted to use a lizard but I wasn’t sure how or why, so I found a way to structure both of these components as part of a sculptural system and chose Neodymium from the rare earth list randomly as the first in the series. I then wrote a short text about how the Solar Cross adorns the Sun and rebels against it at the same time and how the lizard signifies an ancient connection humans have to the planet (through the r-complex, or reptilian brain). Then I produced a soundtrack as a meditative headspace.

Later I found out that Neodymium is used in some reptile lamps. and the Solar Cross actually contains Neodymium magnets after the sculpture was completed. I also discovered that the lizard has a parietal eye (3rd eye) that regulates its circadian rhythms, and that drumbeats can be used to lower the threshold of consciousness and activate the pineal gland, and that brainwave entrainment is also used to stimulate certain brainwaves. (there is a lot of information here – maybe either edit it for clarity or expand it to explain more? Like his train of thought isn’t particularly clear – how do we get to drumbeats and the pineal gland? Maybe just delete if not essential for the text.)

  The fact that all of these connections came afterwards is not accidental or magical, but there are many forces and complexities compelling the development of the world and consciousness, so I try to go with intuition even if I don’t consciously understand why I’m making a certain decision initially. So the project structure is intended to be open ended; like morphogenetic sculpture which can regrow.

  With Europium (2014) I had a longstanding idea to site a sculpture in an artificial woodland in Devon, UK. I found that the woodland was managed by a company called EUROFOREST LTD. for biomass production, and that the rare earth element Europium is primarily mined in Bayan Obo, China. Europium is used on the Euro banknotes and the Koli Forum in Finland posited biomass production as a saviour of the European sustainable bioeconomy. Until recently China has had a monopoly on Rare Earths. (this is tangled between China and sustainable foresting – go through the issues one at a time, perhaps?)

I like to think of all of these events as interacting together chaotically, like a geopolitical energy vortex with outcomes and causalities we can never fully measure. We can imagine weird results and speculate on the potentials and we can expose the strange realities of rapid technological and cultural change. Making a sculptural device which is intended to bring all of these narratives together is one way of materialising and transducing these energies, tensions and interrelationships whilst also creating the conditions or set of parameters for the project to grow and adapt and make new connections.

What is the Centre for Youth Consciousness?  

Last year I began working on the idea that an organisation called the Centre for Youth Consciousness (centreforyouthconsciousness.info) could work in collaboration with Energy Pangea to develop a new Rare Earth Sculpture.  

The organisation wouldn’t ‘really’ exist but would legitimise the sculpture through contextual association - injecting it with meaning and conceptual value and then, subsequently, it could potentially become an actual working organisation if someone else were to take it on.  

The Lanthanum sculpture was developed to align itself to the Centre for Youth Consciousness. It’s in part a critique of how the art world fetishises and exploits ideas of youth and freshness for its own gain, and how the market expends so much research on new generations to figure out what to sell them. The Lanthanum sculpture was launched as a rotating decorative table sculpture in a Mozzarella Bar in Canary Wharf, London. I’ve also considered exhibiting it in the back of a Toyota Prius hybrid car. There is meant to be confusion about whether this is a gimmicky corporate venture, completely out of touch failure or serious research proposal. My current focus has been on ways to create confusion and disinformation in a similar manner to the leaked GCHQ document The Art of Deception: Training for a New Generation of Online Covert Operations.

  Why such corporate language and branding throughout these projects?  

Branding is ubiquitous, whether it is an artificial forest, a cult, an apartment block, Oscar Murillo paintings or Instagrams. Some of the language is corporate, a lot of the time though, I think it reads more like conspiracy theory. Some of it is instructional in that it outlines the components of the sculptural system and how they interrelate symbiotically.

With the last two projects, Europium and Lanthanum I have altered and shifted the function of the text, so it’s become weirder, more affective and lucid. Corporate language can seem certain and convincing and definitive, especially since it is often appropriated from eastern and new age thought  – via the self-help and Mindfulness movements. This maybe helps when I’m trying to make something so arbitrary sound convincing and significant. I think it’s purely a reflection of how I see the current world operating system, what governs exchange and how value is created – relating to the world by buying into it. So there is this feeling of how a new product or innovation is being pitched, something to believe in, or something that might make everything different from this point onwards.

How is the environmental impact of rare earth mining addressed through your sculptures?  

In Promethium (2012) I posited a hypothetical scenario where the collective psyche of the Winklevoss Twins, who were early investors in Facebook, was manifested as an untapped resource and materialised as an exoplanet full of vast promethium deposits. The idea that this planet could be out there somewhere in the universe (as much as logic should have a monkey somewhere typing the complete works of Shakespeare) entangled with the strange energy given off by the Winklevoss Twins was interwoven into the materiality of the sculpture, which used a trail camera, security spikes and an RFID transponder as catalysts.

  In comparison, Dysprosium (2011) is a mass of fabrics sewn together and carried on a transportable canvas. It was designed to be carried through Akbastau, a region in South Kazakhstan, where Toshiba formed a partnership with Kazatomprom, a state-owned nuclear holding company to recover the rare earth by-products of its uranium extraction process. The sculpture, in its relationship with the geography and partnership with Toshiba and Kazatomprom is intended to work as a piece of speculative Earth Acupuncture by focusing energy and attention into the region.  

The results of which are always liminal, each sculpture takes the subject of each element as raw material and transforms it.

  What philosophers, or recent schools of thought, do you find most compelling? Why?

Reza Negrestani’s Cyclonopedia had much influence on (RES) Neodymium. Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology and Hyperobjects; Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory and black boxes, Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack and Cloud Medievalism. I’m sure these examples will come as no surprise and are already apparent in the work but I can’t deny their influence. Peter Krapp’s lecture at Bratton’s Center for Design and Geopolitics at Calit2 in 2011 was also a basis for developing the theoretical groundwork for my project for the rare earth element Thulium.  Dr. Robert E. Ryan’s book on Shamanism and Jungian Psychology had much influence, as did the writings of Traditionalist Philosophers like Rene Guenon and Julius Evola.

Throughout the text component of your various rare earth sculpture projects, there is an emphasis these objects expanding (our) consciousness through their very coming into being. Is this mere satire, or something else?

  Much of my work explores an ambidexterity of positions between belief and scepticism, certainty and uncertainty, it’s simultaneously serious and humorous. It shouldn’t be clear which one of these positions the work holds as it is as deadly serious as much as it is satirical. Extreme relativism, if it is that, shouldn’t be taken lightly or dismissed, we should be able to hold two seemingly opposing positions together at once. I like the idea of objects that work towards the expansion of consciousness because there have been many times that artworks have felt like they have literally done this to me and also because much of my work explores the weird contradictions of the New Age Movement. However as much as I am self consciously presenting a parody of research practice, I am also presenting a parody of consciousness expanding artworks. Having said that, I wouldn’t be so invested in such a task if part of me didn’t also believe in such a possibility.