mirko nikolic: unmining for #copperlove

unmining for #copperlove

Text published originally in HIAP 2015 Publication


In the spring of 2015, I spent two marvelous and intense months at HIAP Suomenlinna working on the first phase of a two-year project 'we ❤ copper & copper ❤ us', as part of Frontiers in Retreat residency programme. What follows are extracts of my notes from the residency period, compounded by after-residency reflections and intermittent tweets from the twitter account of the project.

1/ back-ground

Metals are the inner skeleton or infrastructure of our societies and our technologies. We live in deeply metallic naturecultures, and even our bodies are “walking, talking minerals” (Vladimir Vernadsky). Hence we are wired, internally and externally, with ‘metallic lives’, yet the dynamics of this intimate dependency is sometimes quite opaque, comprehensively blackboxed, offshored, invisibilised...

Computers and mobile phones are made of hundreds of chemical compounds, comprising dozens of metals and rare earths. In other words, each information and communications technology device is a tiny mine. Millions of years of ‘nonlinear history’ of the Earth are compressed into chips that run trades on scale of nanoseconds. As we are acting on geological scale, the atmosphere has not remained intact either. We are in the middle of anthropogenic global warming, and one of the ways to overturn this scenario is, as Naomi Klein exclaims, to “keep stuff in the ground,” and not only the notorious oil and shale gas. Mineral mining that underpins ICT can equally be damaging on social and environmental levels (e.g., ‘coltan wars’ in Congo, massive spill in Mexico, etc. etc.) The workings of the IT companies share a few traits with mining industry, not only a common mineral base, but certain logics too. Let’s think about ‘big data’, or ‘data mining’.

Beyond semiotic correspondence, I would argue that mining data is a quantitative extension of digging the earths. Internet users' activity is turned into resource, extracted, smelted (into datasets), resold, molded into corporate services, sold back to the same or different users...The ‘big data’ thirst of IT juggernauts replicates and upscales the craze of gold rush into the digital realm. There is no discontinuum between data and mineral mining; they are part of a unique extractivist mindset (HT Brett Bloom’s ‘petro-subjectivity’) hard-wired into our devices and daily inter-actions.

2/ in the mangle

From these considerations, I delved into research about various facets of ‘mining’ in Finland. The country has a long mining history starting in 1540, and a strong present. As of September 2015, in operation are 23 precious metals (antimony, gold, uranium, silver), 12 base metals (cobalt, copper, nickel, zinc), 1 diamond, and 4 other types of mines. However, most of Finland’s mines are cyclical, dependent on boom and bust cycle of global commodity markets. When the price drops below certain level, the mine becomes unprofitable and is temporarily put on hold, leading to extended periods of (temporary) lay-off of workers. This has to do mostly with relatively low minerals concentrations in the ore.

Nevertheless, in tune with the larger Scandinavian trend, recent Finnish governments have worked towards enhancing the outlook of mining industry. Despite its not too large reserves, the country has in fact established itself as one of the world’s most attractive destinations for mining. This outlook is premised on a permissive and efficient mining regulation, advanced infrastructure, human resources, and highly detailed geological datasets. The state-run Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) assembles and provides open access to the information about the country’s geology. One of the main activities of the GTK is mapping and estimation of potential or so-called ‘undiscovered resources’. This data is key for attracting mineral-hunters/explorers and investors from over the globe. Together with Kosovo, Finland is the only other country that has been geophysically surveilled in its entirety.

Counter to these developments hovers the massive environmental disaster caused by leaks from tailing ponds of partially state-owned Talvivaara mine in 2012 and 2013 (editor's note: in August 2016, the Talvivaara disaster is still on-going, JN). On the other side of the mineral-data mangle, the big data boom has landed into the country in grand style with Google’s SF-ish data centre at Hamina, an old paper mill conversion right on the shore of Baltic. Across the sea in Luleå, Sweden, Facebook built its own massive data centre. Data needs cool air and water, and the European North is becoming attractive for these huge data-crunching installations run by U.S. Internet stacks. Data and minerals shape convergent or divergent futurities of Finland, different modes of occupation of land and distributions and divisions of labour.

'we ❤ copper & copper ❤ us' situates itself into this mesh of data, policies, financial interests, and geological strata. Data is made of minerals, and minerals’ presents and futures are impacted by data. Can we somehow repurpose the data⤩minerals deep yet opaque linkage, make it more transparent and, hopefully, egalitarian? Extraction logics of big data and minerals are in my view inseparable sides of the same equation that should be publicly discussed from the ground up.

During my stay I have had the chance to attend a couple of symposia about mining at the University of Helsinki. These passionate and inspiring academic and activist debates led me to realise the complexity of the issue. There is no yet known way to build a smartphone or basically any piece of technology without turning earths upside down. How this is done is what makes a whole lot of a difference. Apart from that, we need to consider the circulation of stuff that is already above ground; enormous quantities of metals end up in dumpsites and drawers waiting to be recycled. Some of it can be done first-hand, as I learned at the Fairphone Urban Mining workshop at Open Source Circular Economy Day at Suvilahti. There are many tactics and strategies to think against the self-fulfilling one-way ‘Great Acceleration’.

To make my way through this intricate mess/h, I chose to follow the traces of one single character. I got charmed by copper, one of the longest-standing companion elements of humans, the first metal to be mined on a large scale. The oldest copper artefacts are dated around 5,500 BC, which also represents the transition from the Stone Age to Copper Age. Even today copper is the most popular conductor of power and data. Further, it is one of the metals indispensable for the health of vegetal, animal and human bodies. Its economic/technological importance is such that it is often cited as indicator of how well economies are doing. As a sibling of ‘peak oil’ stands ‘peak copper’. But, beyond its chemical properties, usages and applications, how do we humans truly think and feel about this shiny element?

3/ #weheartcopper

works 'we ❤ copper & copper ❤ us' actualised in two intertwined developmental processes. In collaboration with the awesome Romulus Studio we worked on an online #weheartcoppermine. The website would be an aggregator of public conversations about ‘copper’ from across the social media (twitter, instagram, tumblr). I wouldn’t have thought so, but this spring/summer the word (and the metal) was trending in fashion, jewelry and interior design, and hair colour styles. It’s been all over the news as it reached 6-year lows on the commodity markets. (Maybe this social media buzz pulled me in sub-consciously to focus on this metal and not any other?!) As we all learned from Edward Snowden, Internet is not really cyberspace.

Alternative to the cloud is to host our stuff locally (as back in the ‘90s). #weheartcoppermine was set up on an oldish, upcycled PC happily hacked out of its box and turned into an up-and-running web server by Mikko Laajola. As well as bringing the web back home, I was thinking how to reinvent the sealed architecture of common data centres. Stranded wires are made of bunches of tiny wires braided or twisted together and coated by plastic insulator. Following Jussi Parikka’s advice that ‘data needs air’ (i.e., cool breeze), why not open the wires thus the servers to the atmosphere? A hybrid of a dog agility tunnel, hoola hoop, nomad yurt and wind tunnel became a #weheartcoppertunnel. The skeleton of the tunnel is a single spiral of PVC cable tube, enwrapped into a fabric emblazoned with digitally printed camouflage pattern derived from Finland’s geological maps. Thanks to the amazing tailoring and sewing skills of Siru Juntunen, the messy sketches and prototypes materialised into a full-blown piece of soft infrastructure (or supra-structure).

The tunnel was furnished with seven ratchet hooks on both ends, as well as having internal straps running throughout that would allow it to be suspended. The internal loopholes would be used to hang the server’s panels – an open box nested within an open tube. This DIY open datacentre landed the website locally, all the while remaining fully dependent on the World Wide Web. The website is a live feed of posts from various websites. It basically consists only of links leading to the original posts using the feature. On a very small scale it replicates the archiving of tweets that National Library of Congress and the British Library have been doing. On the other side, as the website is powered by platinum, copper, silicon, gold, aluminium, and many other nonhumans, this is also a place where they can potentially track what we think of them.

In the Excavations show #weheartcoppertunnel was cozily stretched through the arched passage of HIAP Gallery Augusta. As part of the show, on 17 June, together with the Body Building Project, we organised CONVEY: 12 hours of shared practice. The lovely BodyBuilding bunch held a full day of open practice sessions, and I performed #copper #love #maintenance, a sort of ceremonial launch of the tunnel and a good-bye to the residency.

– mirko nikolic, text and project commissioned by Jenni Nurmenniemi, HIAP