THE CRYSTAL WORLD
The White Building, London
3 August – 30 August 2012
The Space’s White Building cultural centre is within walking distance of the 2012 Olympic stadium in post-industrial, post-regeneration London. As I walked down the steps that lead to it I saw a diesel locomotive pulling a train of cargo containers across an old railway bridge over the canal nearby. Millions of these rational forms will be in transit around the world at any given moment, arranged in two or three dimensions like crystalised capital on trains and docks and ships.
The logistics of their production and distribution are determined by computing machinery using algorithms that operate with inhuman speed and complexity. This same economic logic warps the architecture of the area around The White Building, with old factories and warehouses retro-fitted as office space and as gallery space.
Inside the White Building’s project space the computational enabling technology of the global economy is the subject of a show by Martin Howse, Ryan Jordan and Jonathan Kemp. It takes the title of J. G. Ballard’s novel “The Crystal World” as its starting point. In Ballard’s novel a virus progressively turns all life – vegetable, animal and human – into crystal forms frozen in time. It is a Cold War allegory of the catastrophic imposition of rigid order.
For Howse, Jordan and Kemp these imaginary crystals become the very real minerals refined in the production of the computing machinery used to structure our contemporary world. Inside every digital computer are wires, circuit boards, integrated circuits and other components. They are made from iron, copper, phosphorous, boron, tantalum and other rare earth elements. The central processing unit of a computer keeps time using a quartz crystal. The products of deep geological time are suddenly unearthed and set to pulsating millions of times a second.
Computers are crystal engines. They are mineral fetishes that we use to manipulate powerful unseen forces that we believe we have mastered, like crystal healers working with a patient’s energy grid. But they are so invisibly familiar to us as our smartphones and laptops and their use in logistics and media is so pervasive that it takes an effort for us to perceive their operation or their implications.
It takes almost two tonnes of raw materials to make a desktop PC. Unlike “Tantalum Memorial” (2008), by Harwood, Wright and Yokokoji, “The Crystal World” focuses on these raw materials geologically and temporally rather than geopolitically. But computing waste is toxic and valuable. The former makes disposing of old computers a growing problem, the latter makes recycling old computers a growing business. The minerals that computers contain can be recycled where they are valuable enough, or left to leach into the water supply in e-waste dumps where they are not.
Or in the case of “The Crystal World” an open laboratory and the resultant art installation can re-extract them from their components and printed circuit boards using acid, water, electricity and heat in order to re-crystalise them and return them to geological time. The gleaming silent boxes that organize and mediate our lives are returned if not to the earth from whence they came then at least to their raw materials.
Tables edge the White Building project space, covered with the equipment and results of five days of workshops (and one with books, including Ballard’s, giving any spectators unsure of what is happening a conceptual framework to proceed from). Table after table of crystals, circuit boards, jars, electical equipment, and wires are overwhelming in the details of their appearance and implication. These traces of human activity and inquiry frame the flow of water and electricity in the center of the space, convincing the viewer of the creative intent of its production and drawing them in to its logical universe.
The centre piece of the show is a favela chic water feature that drips acid-loaded water through calcinous rock fragments, over e-waste, into two cut plastic-drum tanks. Next to it an array of smaller plastic containers contain circtuit boards having their copper leeched from them by acid, fungus growing on the by-prodcucts of the project, and other watery deconstructions of computing machinery. It looks dangerous and uncertain, deconstructing both the physicality and the meaning of computers. Seeing the innards of an IBM ThinkPad computer becoming encrusted with calcium like a digital stalagtite, or CPUs branching feathery crystals, returns computing machinery to its raw mineral state. FLOPS give way to eons once more. Neither is a human timescale, yet we must live between them at the moment.
The most fantastical artifact along the walls of the project space is the “Earth Computer”. It’s a battery-like construct of recycled copper and zinc in a tray of silver nitrate attached to lightning conductor-style copper strips. Sitting in earth on a plastic sheet and surrounded by the left-over materials of its creation for the duration of the show, it will be buried nearby afterward. Such a device can function effectively, but not literally. It is more likely to spring to life in the mind of the viewer than if it is struck by lightning. It is effective art, psychic engineering rather than technological cargo culting.
Acid, water and electricity mixed together with e-waste look and feel dangerous. The recycled ad-hoc materials and equipment containing and channeling them reinforce this feel and leaven it with an aura of creative investigation. The form of the show is timeless, the workshop of the alchemist, outsider scientist, or mad inventor. Its content is very contemporary, from Ballard’s rising cultural stock and the social and environmental costs of e-waste to Long Now deep time and posthuman philosophy. Art symbolically resolves the gaps between ideology and reality, and computing is so pervasive and key to society that most people don’t even regard it as ideological never mind conceptualise its failings as such.
The water and abandoned human artefacts of some of the installations is more “Drowned World” than “Crystal World”, and the broken machinery is more “Crash”. Ballard’s catastrophes provide a modern mythology that is a more useful resource for art than its literary roots might suggest. It achieves the defamiliarising and critical impact of hauntological art without requiring its supernaturalism or nostalgia. There is a Ballardian attitude at play here.
I found “The Crystal World” mind-blowing. It relates the tools of our human existence to non-human substances and timescales, providing the kind of corrective to anthropocentric vanity that object-oriented philosophy aspires to. It achieves this profound insight and presents it in an accessible way precisely because of the modesty of its materials and aesthetics, and because of the resonances of the cultural materials chosen as its starting point.