ELECTRONIC CULTURE AND FOSSIL FUEL RELIANCE
This solar powered website is a response to the complex ways in which digital media entangle with and contribute to changing ecologies that we experience today.
Digital media are made of stuff. They’re made of metals, chemistries and salts that are sourced from the earth, industrially processed, and manufactured into the devices we use, benefit from, and rely on today. Once discarded, the chemistries from these devices re-enter the earth in various forms of digital rubbish.
Our engagement with solar powered digitality is not a solution, but a mediation on the links between digital media and the future worlds we build for ourselves.
Let us register the toxicity of digital culture and its reliance on fossil fuel extraction. In her analysis of the history electronics, Gabrys reminds us that ‘to produce a two-gram memory microchip, 1.3 kilograms of fossil fuels and materials are required’ (2011: 26). This is particularly significant when we consider the ways in which obsolescence is programmed into digital devices. The global e-waste generated in 2019 mounted to 56.3 million metric tonnes (Forti et al., 2020). This is equivalent to a line of 40-tonne lorries stretching roughly 16,890 kilometres; the length of India five times over, full of e-waste in the form of ‘dead’ matter. It is disused or broken. But it is not dead. If anything, it is on the move.
Toxicants travel through geologies, atmospheres and bodies of various sorts. With The Sustainable Darkroom, Alice Cazenave theorises toxicity and draws on discussions in decolonial ecology to think through the ways in which media entangle with socio-ecological issues.
MEDIA MAKE DEMANDS
Our research considers the legacy of photographic industries and the relationships between image-making practices and ecological futures. With a focus on analogue photographic processes, we share research and consider less toxic and resource intensive techniques for making, using and disposing of photographic materials.
Whilst we work towards low toxic practices, we acknowledge that we cannot live in a world with no harm. This is partly because of the complex histories and violences that we are entangled with today; colonial histories that enabled the movement of metals and minerals from specific areas of the globe, to facilitate technological developments in the Global North for example. These earth-media-minerals come from somewhere and are processed by people and ecologies in complex ways. Working in social anthropology, Alice Cazenave engages with sustainability, or more accurately, regenerative thinking, from both social and ecological perspectives.
Our concern with media and ecologies extends digitally. This is why we have made the decision to self-host a solar powered website.
Data feel intangible, part of the ether, but they require very physical conditions to keep them floating. Data need to be housed, in huge data centres. These are buildings. They are not clouds. In this way, data management requires territory to be operating in specific parts of the world. Within this we can consider historical genocides and displacement of peoples that enabled control and access to these parts of the world, to enable the infrastructures that maintain our technological cultures. Part of our research considers the violences implicit in our vision practices, remembering Haraway, ‘with whose blood were my eyes crafted?’ (Haraway,1988).
Data need to be cool and they need air. In his analysis of digital storage centres, Andrew Blum’s interviews with data engineers give insights into the physical conditions required to store data effectively: ‘cool outside air is let into the building through adjustable louvers near the roof; deionised water is sprayed into it; and fans push the conditioned air down onto the data centre floor’ (Blum, 2012). What we begin to see is the ways in which data centres - which house data - require their own climate regulation. They need all four elements: earth, water, wind and fire. In this way, images entangle with communication practices like sensation and visualisation, but also land, weather systems and nonhuman phenomena like lake desertification, rising temperatures and toxic dust storms.
Alice Cazenave’s research traces the movement of silver. Silver is the light-sensitive element that forms the black pigment of a black and white photograph. This is the silver of the silver screen.
Evidently, the silver comes from somewhere, and it buckles down for its extensive journey:
It was generated billions of years ago when stars exploded. Because of this, it is non-renewable. It forms minerals on the sea floor. It is mined, stolen, accessed, severed. It is smelted, cooled, bought, sold, industrialised. It is medical, functioning as an antibiotic. In certain forms, it is supremely toxic to microbial life. It is processed into film, suspended in a layer of bovine protein on the surface of photographic film. It is the light sensitivity of photographic emulsion. It is the whole universe in your eyes.
It is technologically perfect; conductive and malleable. It resurfaces now, this very moment, in the circuit boards of your computer to enable the reading of these words on the screen. It is ancient and immediate in the same instant. It travels, through rocks, waters, bodies of human and nonhuman kinds. It is not inert. It is very much on the move; through histories, ecologies and biologies.
GEOLOGY, RACE AND VISION
Part of Alice Cazenave’s research with the Sustainable Darkroom considers relations between media, the Anthropocene and settler-colonialism. Settler-colonialism is a type of colonialism in which Indigenous Peoples of a colonised region are displaced by settlers, who form permanent societies on colonised Land. This enquiry into links between photographic industries and colonialism is inspired by Max Liboiron’s invitation to:
‘Look at the structuring logic of your own discipline and forms of knowledge creation to see what its land relations are, what might be colonial about it, and which naturalized and seemingly benign techniques grant access, moralize maximum use, universalize, separate, produce property, produce difference, maintain whiteness’ (Liboiron, 2021: 79).
Alice is thinking through entanglements between photographic silver extraction, industrial processing, climate change and toxicity, in relation to present coloniality. She aligns herself with scholarship which centres racial violence as a complex basis from which the Anthropocene emerges (Yusoff, 2018). This is most starkly exemplified by racist logics that inform how people and places are conceived as extractable and dispensable. Lawrence Summers - then president of the World Bank – exemplified his advocation for the exportation of toxic waste to Africa:
‘I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that...I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles...Just between me and you, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?’ (Lawrence quoted in Johnson et al., 2007: 2)
Thinking about the Anthropocene, this starting point prompts Alice to ask questions about colonialism, rather than the biosphere.
The extraction of silver from the earth is bound up in colonial thinking that persists today. Historically, silver was mined in regions like Peru, Bolivia and Mexico alongside Spanish colonial expansion (Brading & Cross, 1972). Later, in the nineteenth century, silver mining established in the United States. Around this time, Kodak was the largest single buyer of U.S mined silver between 1907-1938 (Kodak, 1938), second only to the U.S Treasury. Today, Mexico and Peru are leading silver producing countries (Garside, 2021), with demand for photographic silver highest in Europe and North America (Newman et al., 2021). Silver then, is grounded in specific territories and mobilised across the globe to facilitate photographic and media culture in specific regions of the globe. In this way, photography entangles in land relations and geopolitics (Liboiron, 2021c).
Alice Cazenave’s research considers colonial logics of metal extraction that were deployed in the past, persist into the present and configure socio-ecological futures. These colonial logics culminate in what Kathryn Yusoff terms ‘geo-logics’; a system of thinking that 'justifies' specific [white settler] conceptions of and behaviours towards, the earth (Yusoff, 2018b). The destruction of ecosystems is grounded in moving vast quantities of the earth, to faciliate geological projects like dam-building and mineral mining, typically associated with (colonial/ settler-colonial) development. She expands this concept into ‘White Geology’ - a geological praxis which violently foregrounds settler colonial goals at the expense of other human and non-human bodies.
Thinking with this, Alice considers the role of race relations in environmental and slow violences associated with silver's extraction and processing (Nixon, 2011). Rob Nixon describes slow violence as: ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all’. Alice considers this in relation to media industries.
Alice’s intention with the Sustainable Darkroom is not to romanticise or yearn for previous, ‘untouched’ ecologies that colonialism helped to destroy (Cubitt, 2014). She acknowledges the privilege associated with conservationist thinking (Taylor, 2016). Alice aims instead to look upstream at colonial structures of outsourcing toxicity, to consider how researchers and practitioners can operate more ethically in a complex matrix of waste, desire, habit and violence. Working with the Sustainable Darkroom is an exercise in staying with the trouble (Haraway 2016), forming spaces of care and community building, and thinking experimentally to consider alternative media practices.
Thoughts and ideas from:
- Blum, A. (2013). Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Ecco.
- Cubitt, S. (2014). Decolonising Ecomedia. Cultural Politics, 10(3), 275–286.
- Ferdinand, M. (2020). Malcom Ferdinand – A Decolonial Ecology: Voices from the Hold of Modernity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNaLugt7cdI (accessed 20.09.2021)
- Gabrys, J. (2011). Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics. University of Michigan Press.
- Liboiron, M. (2021). Pollution Is Colonialism. Duke University Press.
- Little, P. (2019). Bodies, toxins, and e-waste labour interventions in Ghana: Toward a toxic postcolonial corporality? Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana, 14 (1), 52-71.
- Nading, A. M. (2020). Living in a Toxic World. Annual Review of Anthropology, 49, 209–224.
- Nixon, R. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press.
- Parikka, J. (2015). A Geology of Media. Minnesota University Press.Cubitt, S. (2014).
- Taylor, D. (2016). The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege and Environmental Protection. Duke University Press.
- Yusoff. (2018). A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. University of Minnesota Press.