The Mancunion

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Review: Digital Matters – The Earth Behind the Screen

The CFCCA document the lesser known routes of global supply chains, inviting us to question our role as consumers


It has become a trend in contemporary art installations to respond to society’s increasing dependence on technology and the internet. Yet, in the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art’s latest exhibit, it goes to the very root of the issue, focusing on the raw materials which allow us to have this increasing dependence on ‘digital matter’.

Digital Matters interrogates the broader problematic themes of capitalism and colonialism in our persistent production and consumption of modern technology. The pieces evidence the toxic process behind the demand for immediate gratification which is so bound up with technology. Revealing how behind each of our mobile phones and laptops there is an aggressive extraction of mineral sources.

China is at the forefront of global technologies, yet this collection of work instead focuses on the repercussions of this impossibly high demand. Instead deviating to the consequential ecological crisis which China now faces.

The exhibit situates itself amidst these hidden geographical locations and ‘sacrifice zones’, which, ‘masked by corporate advertising often claiming “green” credentials’ become the sites of mass disposal for electronic waste.

The first piece I encountered in the exhibition was the most powerful. Given its own gallery space, the research studio Unknown Fields of Division had produced the film named Rare Earthenware (2014) which documents the global production chain of the rare earth elements, that which are key components for high end electronics.

The film is edited in reverse, which encourages you to see our everyday technological objects as an end-point. The panning shots begin at the ports which deliver the products. The shipping containers evolving into abstract geometric shapes, shot through with primary colours.

Yet this develops back into factory store rooms and production lines, which often hover over an individual worker — providing a further microcosmic narrative within the mass production line.

The video traces all the way back to the origin of a ‘barely-liquid radioactive lake in Inner Mongolia’, as the jarring reverse shots see rubble and debris slowly disappearing back into trucks. This black lake seems to create a stark juxtaposition with the bright colours which the film opened with.

Throughout the imagery is overlaid with delicate white line drawings, as well as labels and statistics which provide a cutting reality to this destructive process. This creates a running commentary which counters the highly aesthetic film.

A second commentary is created by the three ceramic vessels which accompany the film. Each imitating a Ming vase they are in fact made of the toxic waste which was formed in the extraction process documented in the film. The extraction process which is needed to produce a smart phone, laptop and car battery.

The vases compliment the film well, as a more concrete accompaniment to the digital medium. It serves to subvert our ideas on how we value materials and waste – and what is worth preserving. This piece allows you to draw your own conclusions, merely opening up a process which is so often not considered.

The next gallery within the exhibition was structured specifically around works which respond to these ‘sacrifice zones’ I mentioned earlier, those found in Inner Mongolia, the Guandong province, and Hong Kong. A collection of smaller installations was compiled to give an insight into these ‘electronic graveyards’ of the world.

These locations felt the severe environmental effects of element extraction, and had become a ‘dystopian spatial reality of pollution and human exploitation’. This sense of emptiness and desertion was emulated in the dark gallery space, which seemed to be only lit through the dull glow of the television screens.

Though I felt these pieces were less emotive than the Rare Earthenware (2014) film, they worked well as a collection – creating a framing to the haunting negative space of the room, which you were encouraged to navigate.

This exhibit renovated tired trends surrounding how we are becoming an increasingly technology based generation. For by providing a broader and environmental context, it departed from the predominantly social focus in which the topic is normally approached. This created a much more poignant and affective collection of work, which provided a platform for a subject matter which is so easily ignored.

This latest exhibit from the CFCCA encourages us to see a bigger picture, and ask ourselves, ‘what is the social and environmental cost of our consumer desires?’

Digital Matters: The Earth Behind the Screen is on at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art from the 3rd November – 4th February 2018.