Rare Earth
Rare Earth Catalogue, Sternberg Press / Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, 2015
The idea of the Human can only come from elsewhere, not from itself—the inhuman is the only evidence for it.1

The question of periodization is a key aspect of the historical enterprise. What separates one moment in human endeavor from another? How do we knit past events together into narratives that account for why one thing happened and not something completely different altogether? What things or objects should we analyze in order draw conclusions about the spirit of an age? These are not new questions, but prioritizing one periodic frame above others can feel rather arbitrary, given the complexity of prevailing techno-cultural conditions. How, then, might we approach the issue of what is contemporary through an exhibition? Can we ground our attempts to represent this period in something more tangible than references to the immaterial or virtual—figures whose ubiquity seems to stem from their ethereal and thus all enveloping resonance? Can we appeal, instead, to something elemental?

In the middle of the first Industrial Revolution Karl Marx identified its paramount symptom: “All that is solid melts into air.” Today, data is stored in clouds and shares float along with exchange rates. The new revolution is seemingly untethered—wireless and mobile—with bubbles drifting through the worlds of finance and philosophy alike.2 This is just some of the buoyant rhetoric attending our “weightless economy” and the rise of “immaterial labor.”3In addition to this ethereal framing of our digitally informed culture, today’s experience of geography—as mediated by IT—imparts a sense of displacement, hovering, and even teleportation. Sitting at our desks, corresponding with colleagues on the other side of the world, we find ourselves situated in one place and another. Everyday millions of people have out of body experiences, enabled by avatars on social media, or in multiplayer game worlds. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of Google Earth and air travel make us accustomed to the God’s eye perspective of satellites, in orbit, beyond gravity.

Compounding this feeling of untethering, the techno-contemporary experience also promotes an ethos of interchangeability—a function of the phenomenology of web browsing. Hyperlinked cultural space is for the most part flat, with seemingly infinite pathways between sites and values. This suggests a lack of privileged vantage points from which to survey a scene. If you want to learn something about climate change, crackpot theories vie with peer-reviewed research on the same plane. This is surfing—skipping along a vast surface, unencumbered by drag—a synchronic movement without a vertical, lacking depth.

It might seem that the rhetoric of immateriality captures the spirit of our age, in so far as it is deployed in connection with the newest technologies. But at some point it collapses under its own weight. It also turns out that the displaced “anywhere,” “anytime,” “any value” planes of hyperlinked surface do have a horizon. In fact, the limit point of both is one and the same—and it is from this core that “Rare Earth” erupts. We arrived at this position by digging into the early history of exhibition making—specifically, its beginning. One of the earliest periodizations associated with the birth of the museum was the Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen’s approach to exhibiting prehistory—categorizing epochs of human enterprise through reference to the key material bases for cutting-edge tools and weapons. His analysis significantly refined the classifications Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Even in the absence of written testimony, Thomsen’s method was capable of bringing to light fields of ritual, production, and social relations. Transferring Thomsen’s thinking into the present moment, it is clear that the most revolutionary materials for today’s new tools and weapons are a class of seventeen elements from the periodic table. Rare earth elements are the game-changing basis of our most potent new tools—devices that power the so-called information revolution. They are also integral to our weapons systems in the age of cyber-warfare: they are fundamental to smart phones, tablets and laptops, compact fluroescent lamps (LEDs, lightbulbs), hard disks, CD-rom and DVDs, flat panel LCD screens (and, before them, television cathode ray tubes), medical technologies, hi-fi audio, portable electronics (including mobile phones and tablets), small motors, hybrid vehicles, and many more ubiquitous applications. Accordingly, rare earth elements play an increasing role in global affairs, and constitute a fertile ground upon which to begin an exploration of the contemporary.

Our route has also been inspired by one of the most daring reflections upon the relationship between the development of revolutionary tools and weapons and the production of identity. In 1956 the founder of comparative religious studies, Mircea Eliade, described the spiritual upheaval attending the Iron Age. According to his argument, primitive man’s discovery of his ability to change matter from one state to another—the beginning of a journey that would, eventually, lead to chemistry and the materials science of our day—engendered rites, allegories and symbols which have since reverberated throughout human history. It was in this period, he observed, that a whole new pantheon of gods was established—Thor, the smith god with his hammer and anvil, being just one characteristic example. The early forging of iron from ore was also, he maintained, the birth of the idea of alchemical transmutation, of being able to turn base metals into more “noble” substances such as gold, and—significantly—the idea that man himself might also be perfected.4 This historical reflection helps us focus on the possibility that powerful new myths and identities are, similarly, being developed, and distributed, through rare earth enabled media applications today: namely, through inventions that facilitate novel modes of (self)imaging—the human body in magnetic resonance scans (MRI), parades of figures on screens worldwide, radar outlines of moving targets, and big data pools that capture our every move. Eliade’s thesis lends weight to the notion that the contemporary spirit is built, so to speak, from the ground up.

We need not search too hard for echoes of this conflation of technology with spiritual development, and for purifying and overcoming the base matter of human biology, in the arguments of some contemporary philosophers. Raymond Kurzweil’s notion of “the singularity” is a paramount example of emergent mythical thinking in the age of Rare Earth—the idea of perfection as the merging of man and machine on an untethered plane of existence. For Kurzweil, it is time to argue for overcoming the body, and to actively pursue this goal through—we observe—rare earth enabled technologies.5 Critical engagement with such agendas is becoming an urgent task, as the ideology of dematerialization makes us confuse ourselves with gods—pushing aside the issues of inequality and just distribution of resources which, necessarily, attend all embodied human needs. To judge the moral weight of these visions of the contemporary spirit we need only look for the bodies, and they are everywhere: we shoot video from hobby drones and real people from military ones, always acting at a perceived distance—Zeus issuing thunderbolts from The Cloud.

The Cloud is a Green Zone, a Mac Store, a white cube. Everything else is earth, littered with bodies and discarded junk, scarred by terraforming and a War on Terror—to keep the wells open and the mines producing. Below the Olympian heights of the new techno-demiurge there is trauma, applied to the earth as a planetary body as much as to people. Let us, therefore, subordinate the “anytime,” “anywhere” framing of techno-culture to a situated geology of media, acknowledging Jussi Parikka’s observation that the “deep time resources of the earth are what makes technology happen.” Rare earth elements are extracted from very specific locations. Moreover, though their applications, especially media technologies, might catalyze feelings of weightlessness and displacement in the user—dreams that we have broken free of the earth, time, and corporeal being itself—these devices are real burdens from an ecological standpoint. As McKenzie Wark puts it, channeling Parikka, “[c]inema is like a bright brief digital dawn across the surface of devices destined to spend the eons again buried in the analog night.” Elsewhere, “[t]he deep time of the earth is quite literally strip-mined to make the quick-time movies of our era.”6 Of course there is bathos in the statement that we are mining our deep time resources to run such videos. The immediate impression is that our planet is being trashed only to produce junk—in this context “quick-time” sounds like fast food. But, precisely because the current ecological crisis is indisputable, we must not leave the cultural impact of rare earth applications unexamined.7 There can be no treatment of our environmental sickness while the ideology of untethering and immateriality remains cloistered, apart from its material wellspring.

In fact, we need deeper reflections upon the increased tethering, interconnection, or fusion of humanity and non-human objects or systems. We may liken this fusion process to a spreading virus, as the term implies not only the occupation of a host by something alien but also the prevalence of mutations—such that both host and insurgent are deeply altered through contact with one another, and may even develop into something new altogether. Fortunately, cultural analysis is already undertaking this task. According to Bruno Latour:

We find ourselves invaded by frozen embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor equipped robots, hybrid corn, data banks, psychotropic drugs, whales outfitted with radar sounding devices, gene synthesizers, audience analyzers....

Just a few of the proliferating nature-culture hybrids that are symptomatic of what he terms our “modern” condition. Mixtures that seem, to him and many more thinkers, to call for radical new analyses, to better address the increasingly blurry boundaries between “dumb” things and animate life. Following Deleuze and Guattari’s foundational statements on “connective and disjunctive syntheses” there was A Cyborg Manifesto (1985), in which Donna Haraway asserted the breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine as “any objects or persons can be reasonably thought of in terms of disassembly and reassembly.” "No ‘natural’ architectures,” she continues, “constrain system design.”8 The American philosopher Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History would seek the basis of human societies—including the birth of cities, economic structures, technologies and languages—in material processes. “Culture,” he maintained, “is not a completely separate sphere of reality, but instead mixes and blends with flows of organic (and even mineral) materials.”9 If this is the case—pace Eliade—we must acknowledge the presence of machines and inanimate agents in the areas we previously thought our ghosthood—consciousness, memory, desire, sensation, and even civilization. Teleological forces like the Hegelian geist, “human nature,” and most varieties of essentialism appear as naïve suppositions in the age of rare earth.

Such reflections set the scene for more recent projects that decenter the human subject’s position in the realm of ontology—the philosophical study of being. Simply put, a growing number reject the idea that the world exists for human consciousness, a basic principle of Western philosophy since Kant that has been termed correlationism.10 Rather, a thing exists “regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not.” With the human subject denied priority, horizons are pushed back and the “great outdoors, the absolute outside" beckons.11 It becomes time to engage in Object Oriented Ontology; to entertain Alien Phenomenology and ask the question “What is it like to be a thing?”; to pursue “speculative realisms” and even Ecology Without Nature.12 The strangeness of our hybrid moment has forged some truly visionary reimaginations of materials as agents in their own right: as Others that move—and which move us. The study of anthropology has long since confirmed that while we may design our technologies, these tools and weapons shape us in turn. Following the philosophical repositioning of the human subject a further thought emerges: while it may seem that we dream the contemporary into existence, perhaps rare earth elements and other materials are dreaming through us.13 Our most contemporary art is, of course, engaged in the task of mapping the contours of this new hybrid terrain and the putative agency of materials. The works in “Rare Earth” are wholly engaged in this challenge.

The exhibition unfolds as a kind of kaleidoscopic dream space, in which speculation and fact intermingle: a parcours through myth and material, proposing interplay between the spirit of our age and its physical basis in rare earth enabled tools and weapons. Detailed descriptions of each artwork appear elsewhere throughout this volume, but it is worth briefly commenting upon how the featured artworks serve this agenda. “Rare Earth” features ten newly commissioned pieces, which develop the theme by staging the impact of rare earth elements on our contemporary culture and worldview: outlining their bewildering range of applications across various spheres (Suzanne Triester); highlighting the contested scientific, economic and political circuits that underpin these products—as well as reflecting upon the ubiquity of rare earth elements in the accoutrements that surround us, and which enable contemporary lifestyles (Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen, Ai Weiwei). As they do so, such works highlight how unconsidered and somewhat obscure the importance of rare earth elements are for most people, gesturing towards the laissez-faire attitude our culture takes towards the use and abuse of natural resources. Other newly commissioned works, such as Ursula Mayer’s Luminous Lining and Erick Beltran’s Hephaestus’ Dream, consider how mastery of rare earth elements begets new identities and mythographies. These include cyborg couplings of man and machine—fluid boundaries of personhood—just as the material engagements of ancient history gave birth to the automaton forged by Hephaestus, the Greek god of metalwork. Others, such as Marguerite Humeau’s Screams from Hell: Requiem for Harley Warren and Charles Stankievech’s Anbarium, dramatize the agency of rare earth elements by imagining them as living actors who possess their own voices and agendas. Moreover, beyond questions of individual agency, the issue of social conflict is brought into the frame, through critical appraisal of the status quo that brings rare earth enabled tools to market and which, consequently, demands the emergence of a new class of revolutionary actors (Arseniy Zhilyaev). And from the ground up, so to speak, a work such as Jean Katamabyi Mukendi’s Voyant reflects upon the viability of alternative modes of self-reliance in the technological sphere, while offering an identificatory totem to such endeavors.

The exhibition also incudes seven loaned works, across a spectrum of media and artistic approaches. While, apart from Iain Ball’s Energy Pangea: Neodymium, they might not obviously take rare earth elements as a topic, they do share a concern with how emergent technologies condition our contemporary experience; stimulating new self-images and desires (Otolith Group); increasing our control over the natural world (Camile Henrot, Katie Paterson), as well as our fellow human beings (Roger Hiorns) by virtue of being both powerful new tools and weapons. Others take as their topic the redrawn perceptions of time and space associated with rare earth media—that is, the apparent feeling of a perpetual, weightless present (Guan Xiao, Oliver Laric). Blindly championing this perception—or ideology—is, as the exhibition mission contends, to willfully deny the background of mines, labor, and ecological impact that rare earth applications require. That “Rare Earth” does not feature photographic documentary exposés of human and ecological trauma is intentional. It is only by critically attending to what blinds or intoxicates us that we may discern possible antidotes. Moreover, the ideology of transparent media—including news media—must be challenged. Running counter to the geology of media and its mode of environmental and political engagement, transparency occludes the existence of hybrid bodies in its pursuit of more digestible or discrete images: journalism figures effect. Staging the powerful interplay between materials science, technology and new mythic/ideological structures, “Rare Earth” addresses structure and ground.

A specter has been haunting contemporary techno-culture: its own materiality. This project is a speculative cosmology, the exhibition as alchemy: a counter-intuitive hybrid of astringent design and system-fetish meeting the mud and fossils of archaeology. It is modernism, Minimalism and Land art collapsed into pop-up menus and touch screens: biology rendered unto the mineral. It is what is bubbling way in underground caverns and what is cooked up in laboratories. It is the masters we serve while seated at our worktables, and the things created on operating tables. It is an image on a tablet and its function as medicine. It is a spreadsheet tabulating biopolitical futures. It is the question of historical periodization contained in the periodic table.

1. Jean Baudrillard, Fragments.
2. So-called financial market “bubbles,” and in old fashioned magnum opera of philosophy such as Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres Vol. 1: Bubbles (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011). In this initial volume of the 2500 page work,Sloterdijk, a self-described “student of the air,” reimagines the history of Western metaphysics as beginning with the discovery of self (bubble) before moving on to the exploration of world (globe) and the poetics of plurality (foam).
3. A portion of the economy which exchanges intangible services and products, including software, databases and intellectual property. There are at least two key features of the weightless economy. First, products have a high initial cost to develop, but a very low cost to reproduce and distribute. Second, products can be distributed infinitely. These two factors mean that the weightless economy can be among the fastest growing and most profitable sectors of business. See http://www.investopedia.com/terms/w/weightless-economy.asp.
4. Through processes including alchemical rites and Yoga.
5. Raymond Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 9.
6. See https://twitter.com/savageminds/status/542226785107054593. Accessed January 12, 2015.
7. As one critic puts it, “technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves.” M. Kranzberg, “Technology and History: Kranzberg’s Laws,” Technology and Culture 27, no. 3: 545.
8. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/donna-haraway/articles/donna-haraway-a-cyborg-manifesto.
9. Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 111.
10.“Correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another.” See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), 5.
11. Ibid., 7.
12. See Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012) and Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics,(Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
13. The notion of the Anthropocene can be summarized as the observation that the geophysical sphere has become a prosthesis of humanity—we have transformed the earth and remade it in our own image. For Object Oriented Ontology and Dark Ecology, the move is in the opposite direction: suggesting that we are the prostheses of inhuman, alien entities.