Material Realities

By Brett Neilson

15 October 2010

In their 2010 installation entitled 'Coal-Fired Computers', artists Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji (working as YoHa) powered computers directly with coal via a steam engine. Exhibited at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the work featured a pig’s lung that inhaled the exhaust fumes while the computers searched the internet for data on coal related deaths.

The piece makes a highly rhetorical statement that works on several levels. Not only does it respond to the industrial heritage of England’s northeast but it also exposes the mystification involved in the notion that computing sustains a cleanly efficient and immaterial kind of labour. At the festival in which the installation opened, mining activist Dave Douglass connected the closing of the UK’s coal mines, the health claims of miners and the ‘invisible’ workers who produce the six billion tonnes of coal imported by the UK each year. In a recent interview with Anthony Iles, Graham Harwood explains of the work:

'Coal Fired Computers' burns coal for its own sake, it is not outside the process. It is a self-induced crisis bringing those diseased humans, their activism into proximity with the engines that transformed them, linking to the conceptual engines, (databases, computers) that transform us as the steam engine transformed the Victorians to Empire.

Perhaps this is not a bad set of connections to remember for a research centre that cultivates a concern with digital methods alongside an interest in culture, nature and environments.

At the time of writing, coal mining is hardly an invisible activity in the computer-fired networks of the global media. The rescue (opens in a new window)of trapped coal miners in Chile has emerged as a spiritualised national event. While on the home front, coal remains Australia’s highest earning export commodity, behind iron ore and higher education. The current mining boom has shaped the nation’s economy, although in ways that governments have found hard to tax.

YoHa’s method involves tracking down the supply chains that link information technologies to the raw materials and labour processes that constitute them. This is a similar process to that pursued by the Transit Labour (opens in a new window)platform currently being run through CCR. Researchers in this project have not only visited circuit board factories (opens in a new window)in China to investigate the tributaries that supply high-end practices of computer-mediated labour. They have also examined the logistics operating further down the supply chain where outdated equipment enters the market (opens in a new window)for electronic waste (opens in a new window).

What is at stake in following down these supply chains, if that is still the right metaphor in the time of network society? In a recent article (opens in a new window)published on the Periscope (opens in a new window)site of the journal Social Text, Stefano Harney posits a shift from statistical populations to logistical populations.

‘If statistics produced a population that engaged in explorations of … finer ways to achieve productivity or public policy’, Harney writes, logistical populations extend themselves ‘by breaking through statistical categories and making connections, between life and work, public and private, political and economic, and organic and inorganic. Logistics is the work of extending circuits through new adaptions, translations, governances, scales, and approximations’.

What becomes clear from works like YoHa’s is that logistics is not simply a corporate fantasy of decentralised power and governance but a terrain upon which a new kind of politics emerges. As Harwood states: ‘For me there is very little difference in coal, coltan, computing and the labour (sometimes forced) that produced them or their consumption, which can be seen to unfold into other forms of production’.

Cultural research has long been concerned with the practices of production and consumption that shape our cultural lives. It is now increasingly obvious that these practices cannot be studied in abstraction from the energy generation that drives them and the waste they shed. These material realities are hard to avoid, even for those who spend most of their working lives before computer screens.