A group of architects, writers, and designers that make up the Unknown Fields Division embarked on a quest to find the essence of what makes our luxurious modern life of high-end electronics and green technologies possible. For their project titled Rare Earthenware the group was searching for the source, refineries, and final resting place of 17 in-demand rare earth metals and after three weeks of weaving through a global supply chain, found themselves at a massive lake in Inner Mongolia near Baotou, China. This “lake” was more like a radioactive mud pit containing the waste produced when giving life to our smartphones, laptops, and green technologies.
Photograph by Toby Smith, Unknown Fields Division
This tech waste graveyard for the materials that provide seemly boundless vitality in the Digital Age is what you would expect – dead, barren, and toxic. It is feels like a grim, post-apocalyptic manifestation of the destiny of the decadent modern human. It is a story about technology, hiding behind a veil of luxury and pleasure, destroying earth and life. We can’t help but imagine our laptops and smartphones with a gooey black sludge filling, slowly, quietly, stripping us of our humanity.
Wearing body and skin protection, the group collected the radioactive mud from the lake and transported it to their London workshop. Here, Kevin Callaghan processed the mud mixture of acids, heavy metals, carcinogens, and radioactive material into a workable clay and threw three tall vases.
“Each [ceramic vessel] is proportioned as a traditional Ming vase,” Unknown Fields Division explains, “and is made from the amount of toxic waste created in the production of three items of technology—a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of a smart car battery.”
The vases are on display at the V&A’s What is Luxury? exhibition, where a powerful irony is witnessed when visitors whip out their smartphones to snap a picture. Mid-shoot you might realize you are holding your device up for comparison to the small vase. The size, weight, and toxicity of waste you created by purchasing your smartphone comes quickly into focus and here you are, holding it up proudly for everyone around you to see.
The powerful documentary film by photographer Toby Smith and the three vases made from radioactive mud are on display at The Victoria & Albert Museum’s What is Luxury? exhibition in London through September 2015. Watch the single, panning shot film of the global tech supply chain below and tell us what you think of Rare Earthenware in the comments.
Justin Crowe is a Writer-at-Large for CFile.
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