I missed the story last month that a company called Planetary Resources had successfully 3D-printed a small model using “metals not from Earth”—that is, metal harvested from a meteorite. “Transforming a chunk of space rock into something you can feed into a 3D printer is a pretty odd process. Planetary Resources uses a plasma that essentially turns the meteorite into a cloud that then ‘precipitates’ metallic powder that can be extracted via a vacuum system. ‘It condenses like rain out of a cloud,’ said [a company spokesperson], ‘but instead of raining water, you’re raining titanium pellets out of an iron nickel cloud.’ (…) ‘Everyone has probably seen an iron meteorite in a museum, now we have the tech to take that material and print it in a metal printer using high energy laser. Imagine if we could do that in space.’”
The Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota, was once “the largest, deepest and most productive gold mine in North America,” featuring nearly 370 miles’ worth of tunnels.
Although active mining operations ceased there more than a decade ago, the vast subterranean labyrinth not only remains intact, it has also found a second life as host for a number of underground physics experiments.
[Image: Digital model of the old mine tunnels beneath Lead, South Dakota; via SITU Fabrication].
These include a lab known as the Sanford Underground Research Facility, as well as a related project, the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (or DUSEL).
Had DUSEL not recently run into some potentially fatal funding problems, it “would have been the deepest underground science facility in the world.” For now, it is on hold.
[Image: Digital model of the old mine tunnels beneath Lead, South Dakota; via SITU Fabrication].
There is already much to read about the experiments going on there, but one of the key projects underway is a search for dark matter. As Popular Science explained back in 2010:
Now a team of physicists and former miners has converted Homestake’s shipping warehouse into a new surface-level laboratory at the Sanford Underground Laboratory. They’ve painted the walls and baseboards white and added yellow floor lines to steer visitors around giant nitrogen tanks, locker-size computers and plastic-shrouded machine parts. Soon they will gather many of these components into the lab’s clean room and combine them into LUX, the Large Underground Xenon dark-matter detector, which they will then lower halfway down the mine, where—if all goes well—it will eventually detect the presence of a few particles of dark matter, the as-yet-undetected invisible substance that may well be what holds the universe together.
Earlier this year, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I noticed some cool photos popping up from a Brooklyn-based firm called SITU Fabrication. The images showed what appeared to be a maze of strangely angled metal parts and wires, hanging from one another in space.
[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by SITU Fabrication].
One of them—seen above, and resembling some sort of exploded psychogeographic map of Dante’s Inferno—was simply captioned, “#CNC milled aluminum plates for model of underground tunnel network in #SouthDakota.”
Living within walking distance of the company’s DUMBO fabrication facility, I quickly got in touch and, a few days later, stopped by to learn more.
[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
SITU’s Wes Rozen met me for a tour of the workshop and a firsthand introduction to the Homestake project.
The firm, he explained, already widely known for its work on complex fabrication jobs for architects and artists alike, had recently been hired to produce a 3D model of the complete Homestake tunnel network, a model that would later be installed in a visitors’ center for the mine itself.
Visitors would thus encounter this microcosm of the old mine, in lieu of physically entering the deep tunnels beneath their feet.
[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
Individual levels of the mine, Rozen pointed out, had been milled from aluminum sheets to a high degree of accuracy; even small side-bays and dead ends were included in the metalwork.
Negative space became positive, and the effect was like looking through lace.
[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].
Further, tiny 3D-printed parts—visible in some photographs, further below—had also been made to connect each level to the next, forming arabesques and curlicues that spiraled out and back again, representing truck ramps.
[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].
The whole thing was then suspended on wires, hanging like a chandelier from the underworld, to form a cloud or curtain of subtly reflective metal.
When I showed up that day, the pieces were still being assembled; small knots of orange ribbon and pieces of blue painter’s tape marked spots that required further polish or balancing, and metal clamps held many of the wires in place.
[Images: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photos by BLDGBLOG].
Seen in person, the piece is astonishingly complex, as well as physically imposing—in photographs, unfortunately, this can be difficult to capture.
However, the sheer density of the metalwork and the often impossibly minute differences from one level of the mine to the next—not to mention, at the other extreme, the sudden outward spikes of one-off, exploratory mine shafts, shooting away from the model like blades—can still be seen here, especially in photos supplied by SITU themselves.
A few of the photos look more like humans tinkering in the undercarriage of some insectile aluminum engine, a machine from a David Cronenberg movie.
[Image: Assembling the model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].
Which seems fitting, I suppose, as the other appropriate analogy to make here would be to the metal skeleton of a previously unknown creature, pinned up and put together again by the staff of an unnatural history museum.
[Image: Model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo by BLDGBLOG].
The model is now complete and no longer in Brooklyn: it is instead on display at the Homestake visitors’ center in South Dakota, where it greets the general public from its perch above a mirror. As above, so below.
[Images: The model seen in situ, by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photos courtesy of SITU Fabrication].
Again, it’s funny how hard the piece can be to photograph in full, and how quick it is to blend into its background.
This is a shame, as the intricacies of the model are both stunning and worth one’s patient attention; perhaps it would be better served hanging against a solid white background, or even just more strategically lit.
[Image: The model by SITU Studio with C&G Partners; photo courtesy of SITU Fabrication].
Or, as the case may be, perhaps it’s just worth going out of your way to see the model in person.
Indeed, following the milled aluminum of one level, then down the ramps to the next, heading further out along the honeycomb of secondary shafts and galleries, and down again to the next level, and so on, ad infinitum, was an awesome and semi-hypnotic way to engage with the piece when I was able to see it up close in SITU’s Brooklyn facility.
I imagine that seeing it in its complete state in South Dakota would be no less stimulating.
(Vaguely related: Mine Machine).
“High in the Pyrenees Mountains,” we read, “deep in abandoned mines, scientists discovered peculiar black shells that seem to crop up of their own accord on metal surfaces.”
It turns out that, under certain conditions, subterranean microbes can leave behind metallic deposits “as part of their natural metabolism.” Abandoned mines are apparently something of an ideal environment for this to occur within, resulting in “a rapid biomineralization process that sprouts iron-rich shells from the surface of steel structures.”
These then build up into reef-like deposits through a process analogous to 3D-printing: “Electron microscopy revealed small-scale, fiber-like crystals arranged into lines growing outward from the steel surface. The shells appear to be formed layer by layer, with crystal size and composition varying across layers.”
There are many, many interesting things to highlight here, which include but are not limited to:
We could literalize the analogy used above by exploring how a controlled or guided version of this exact same process could be used as a new form of biological 3D-printing.
To put this another way, there is already a slow food movement—why not a slow printing one, as well?
Similar to the project John Becker and I explored a while back, using genetically-modified bees as living printheads, damp, metal-rich environments—microbial ovens, so to speak—could be constructed as facsimile mines inside of which particular strains of microbes and fungi would then be cultivated.
Geometric molds would be introduced as “seed-forms” to be depositionally copied by the microbes. Rather than creating the abstract, clamshell-like lumps seen in the below photograph, the microbes would be steered into particular shapes and patterns, resulting in discrete, recognizable objects.
Boom: a living 3D-printer, or a room of specially cultivated humidity and darkness out of which strange replicant tools and objects could be extracted every few years. At the very least, it would make a compelling art project—an object-reef sprouting with microbial facsimiles.
[Image: Metal shells growing in the darkness of abandoned mines; photo by Nieves López-Martínez, via Eos].
Historian David Gissen has written interestingly about the idea of “dankness” in architecture.
In an article for Domus back in 2010, Gissen explained that “dankness”—or “underground humidity,” in his words, a thick atmosphere of mold, rot, and stagnation usually found inside closed, subterranean spaces—was even once posited by architectural historian Marc-Antoine Laugier as a primal catalyst for first inspiring human beings to build cleaner, better ventilated structures—that is, architecture itself, in a kind of long-term retreat from the troglodyte lifestyle of settling in caves.
Dankness, to wildly over-simply this argument, so horrified our cave-dwelling ancestors that they invented what we now call architecture—and a long chain of hygienic improvements in managing the indoor atmospheric quality of these artificial environments eventually led us to modernism.
But dankness has its uses. “While modernists generally held dankness in suspect,” Gissen writes, “a few held a certain type of affection for this atmosphere, if only because it was an object of intense scrutiny. The earliest modernist rapprochements with dankness saw it as the cradle of a mythical atmosphere, an atmosphere that preceded modernity.” The “atmospheric depths of the cellar,” Gissen then suggests, might ironically be a sign of architectural developments yet to come:
Today, in the name of environmentalism, architects are digging into the earth in an effort to release its particular climatic qualities. Passive ventilation schemes often involve underground constructions such as “labyrinths” or “thermosiphons” that release the earth’s cool and wet air. The earth that architects reach into is one that has been so technified and rationalized, so measured and considered, that it barely contains mythical or uncanny aspects. However, this return to the earth’s substrate enables other possibilities.
In any case, I am not only quoting this essay because it is interesting and deserves wider discussion; I am also quoting all this in order to suggest that dankness could also be instrumentalized, or tapped as a kind of readymade industrial process, an already available microbial atmosphere wherein metal-depositing metabolic processes pulsing away in the dankest understructures of the world could be transformed into 3D-printing facilities.
The slow printheads for long-term object replication, mentioned above, would be fueled by and dependent upon Gissen’s spaces of subterranean humidity.
Heavy Metal Compost
If it is too difficult, too unrealistic, or simply too uselessly speculative to consider the possibility of 3D-printing with microbes, you could simply eliminate the notion that this is meant to produce recognizable object-forms, and use the same process instead as a new kind of compost heap.
Similar to throwing your old banana peels, coffee grounds, apple cores, and avocado skins into a backyard compost pile, you could throw metallic waste into a Gissen Hole™ and wait for genetically-modified microbes such as these to slowly but relentlessly break it all down, leaving behind weird, clamshell-like structures of purified metal in their wake.
Cropping teams would then climb down into this subterranean recycling center—or open an airlock and step inside some sort of controlled-atmosphere facility tucked away on the industrial outskirts of town—to harvest these easily commodified lumps of metal. It’d be like foraging for mushrooms or picking strawberries.
[Image: An “ancient coral reef,” illustrated by Heinrich Harder].
The Coming Super-Reef
Finally, this also seems to suggest at least one fate awaiting the world of human construction long after humans themselves have disappeared.
Basements in the ruined cores of today’s cities will bloom in the darkness with ever-expanding metallic reefs, as the steel frames of skyscrapers and the collapsed machinery of the modern world become source material—industrial soil—for future metal-eating microbes.
Quietly, endlessly, wonderfully, the planet-spanning dankness of unmaintained subterranean infrastructure—in the depths of Shanghai, London, New York, Moscow—humidly accumulates these strange metallic shells. Reefs larger than anything alive today form, crystallized from the remains of our cities.
A hundred million years go by, and our towers are reduced to bizarre agglomerations of metal—then another hundred million years and they’ve stopped growing, now hidden beneath hundreds of meters of soil or flooded by unpredictable shifts of sea level.
Clouds of super-fish unrecognizable to today’s science swim through the grotesque arches and coils of what used to be banks and highways, apartment blocks and automobiles, monstrous and oyster-like shells whose indirect human origins no future paleontologist could realistically deduce.
In a 2011 paper on the medical effects of scurvy, author Jason C. Anthony offers a remarkable detail about human bodies and the long-term presence of wounds.
“Without vitamin C,” Anthony writes, “we cannot produce collagen, an essential component of bones, cartilage, tendons and other connective tissues. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is replaced continually throughout our lives. Thus in advanced scurvy”—reached when the body has gone too long without vitamin C—“old wounds long thought healed will magically, painfully reappear.”
In a sense, there is no such thing as healing. From paper cuts to surgical scars, our bodies are catalogues of wounds: imperfectly locked doors quietly waiting, sooner or later, to spring back open.
The Carlin Trend was discovered in north-central Nevada, near the town of Elko, in 1962. Some fifty years later, at this time of writing, it remains one of the world’s largest actively mined deposits of gold ore. In fact, the region has become something of a category-maker in the gold industry today, which describes analogous landscapes and ore bodies as “Carlin-type” deposits. The Carlin Trend is a standard, in other words: a referent against which others are both literally and rhetorically measured.
The trend’s discovery and subsequent exploitation—and the extraordinary negative landforms that have resulted from its exhumation—has been a story of nineteenth-century U.S. mining laws, legally dubious provisions governing public land, extraction industry multinationals, advanced geological modeling software, specialty equipment few people can name let alone operate, and genetically modified bacteria mixed into vats of gold-harvesting slurry.
Writing in 1989, John Seabrook of The New Yorker pointed out that, in the previous eight years alone, more gold had been mined from the Carlin Trend “than came out of any of the bonanzas that feature so prominently in our national mythology, including the California bonanza of 1849.” That’s because gold in the region is all but ubiquitous, peppered and snaked throughout Nevada:
There is gold in the Battle Mountain Formation, the range that runs southeast of town; gold in the alluvium to the west; gold in the Black Rock Desert to the northwest; gold in the Sheep Creek Range and in the Tuscarora Mountains to the northeast. The Tuscaroras are especially rich. Along the Carlin Trend, a forty-mile stretch of this range, are twelve deposits. Some people believe that a much richer swatch of ore, a deposit to rival South Africa’s Gold Reef, runs unbroken under the Carlin Trend, perhaps three thousand feet down—more than three times as deep as the deepest mines there now go.
“Some people believe”: more is hidden in the apparent neutrality of Seabrook’s phrase than we might at first suspect. Mining for gold—the actual, violent excision of waste rock from the earth, searching for ore—is never a question of finding a perfect, shiny lump of solid metal and carefully, surgically removing it from the planet. Gold is diffuse. It is now more often mined as particles, not blocks or even nuggets. Like glitter, it is scattered throughout the rocks around it.
In fact, the presence of gold, in many cases, can only be inferred. The angle at which local rock strata dip back into the planet, the direction water flows through the landscape, or the complex of other minerals and crystals locked in the rocks underground: these all, to varying degrees, act as telltale signatures for the famously coy king of metals.
Looking for these signatures entails a peculiar mix of local folklore and verified science, and the hunt—sometimes life-consuming, sometimes maddening—for signs is exhaustively documented by what Seabrook calls “prospecting paraphernalia: geological reports, assay figures, maps, contracts, aerial photographs, electromagnetic surveys, gravitometer readings, lawsuits, letters from people who think they have gold on their property, letters from people who know people who have gold on their property.”
Gold is less discovered, we might say, than interpreted.
The Carlin Trend has thus served as a test site, now in its fifty-first year, for various interpretive techniques, both scientific and superstitious. Specialty journals refer to the region’s “geochemical patterns”—only fragments of which are available to them to analyze for “the characteristics, signatures, and genesis of Nevada’s world-class gold systems”—the idea being that these might be found again elsewhere and thus be more instantly recognizable. Geologists track concentrations, contours, “metal zones,” and mineralized fractures; they build models of “stacked geochemical anomalies” in the earth below, hoping to piece together an accurate model of the gold ore’s location.
[Image: “American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 8, 2007)” by David Maisel].
Where the gold came from in the first place is yet another interpretive preoccupation. A paper—forthrightly titled “Is the Ancestral Yellowstone Hotspot Responsible for the Tertiary ‘Carlin’ Mineralization in the Great Basin of Nevada?”—suggests that the gold of the Carlin Trend is actually a thermal after-effect, or geochemical ghost, of the still-nomadic Yellowstone hotspot that once pulsed and geysered beneath Nevada.
The language used to describe these deposits is often extraordinary. We read, for instance, that discontinuous ore bodies apparently produced at different “stages of mineralization” in the earth’s history might, in fact, be “part of a single event that evolved chemically through time.” That is, one state-sized geological event—with titanic embryos merging and splitting inside the earth—delicately infused into the landscape from below as slow pulses of mineral-rich magmatic fluid freeze into spidery veins of precious metal. Or we read about “anomaly-related mineral assemblages,” millions of years’ worth of “mineralizing events,” and “geochemical halos in this part of the Carlin Trend.” Industrial descriptions of the earth’s interior lend an unexpected poetry to the act of mining.
Another way of saying all this is that mind-bogglingly large terrestrial events, occurring invisibly below ground in rock formations we can only measure indirectly—scanning the earth for hidden signatures—produce ore bodies, the excavation, dismemberment, and eventual global distribution of which shapes human economic history in turn.
In any case, the form of a gold deposit itself must be mapped and clarified before excavation can begin. The shape of the ensuing pit is not the result of frantic, directionless digging, but of a carefully controlled design process. The word “design” is used deliberately here, even if the shape of the pit is orchestrated not by aesthetics but by the needs of financial rationality. Using proprietary graphics software—similar in function to visual effects programs used in film, gaming, and architecture—the ore body is predictively 3D-modeled.
Mining, at this point, becomes less an act of extraction than of physical verification: machines and their profit-minded operators pursue the outlines of a virtual form by gradually expanding the mine’s target zones, in effect checking to see if the geologists’ models were right.
As architect Liam Young suggested in a recent interview, conducted after he returned from leading a group of design students on a research trip to the gold mines of Western Australia,
mining engineers are basically designers. They develop all these fragmentary data into models, which become the design of the pit itself. … But then what happens is, based on gold prices, the pit model changes. In other words, if the gold price or the mineral price is higher, then the pit gets wider as it becomes cost-effective to mine areas of lower concentration. This happens nearly in real time—the speed of the machines digging the pit can change over the course of the day based on the price of gold, so the geometry of the pit is utterly parametric, modeling these distant financial calculations.
In essence, Young suggests, mining engineers produce and explore speculative models of gold distribution in the rocks below ground. Using surprisingly low-res data taken from seismic tests and weighing that data against equipment availability, labor costs, and, most importantly, the internationally recognized price of gold, the extraordinary ballet of machines can begin.
This then becomes predictive on a much larger scale, as well. By constantly refining their models of how exactly gold forms in the first place, and where and how it can be mined most effectively, geologists can understand where—and, to some extent, predict when—future ore bodies might accumulate. Interestingly, these future deposits will appear on a timescale that far exceeds human civilization—so, while human miners most likely won’t be around to exploit them, it’s nonetheless intriguing to know that serpent-like veins of precious metal are incubating in the darkness beneath us.
Here we return to Seabrook, who warns that “there is a good deal of poetry in these figures,” of ounces mined and subterranean veins discovered. “They are based on statistical models, a kind of three-dimensional game of connect the dots played by a computer.”
These are then treated explicitly and formally as works of art: Seabrook points out “a computer-generated three-dimensional picture of the ore body, dry-mounted and framed,” hanging on a geologist’s office wall. Call it the new Subterranean Romantic:
Mining people have a habit of stretching the metaphor when they talk about their ore bodies. They say how beautiful, how satisfying, how tantalizing their ore body is, they make hourglass shapes with their hands, knead with their fingers, smooth with their palms as they talk.
These gorgeous bodies, removed from the earth, leave scars: precisely designed but roughly implemented holes—exit wounds of temporally contingent value—clearly and deliriously visible from above.
The very idea that gold has value is a funny thing. Aside from a few basic industrial uses, gold’s value is almost entirely ornamental—that is, it is agreed upon by financial traders and metals futures markets, even if no actual gold changes hands. Gold comes out of one, very carefully designed hole in the ground—whether in Nevada, South Africa, or Western Australia—only, most likely, to be interred again in another part of the world in a bank vault or federal reserve, where it is precisely gold’s removal from direct exchange that augments its value and its mystery.
Mystery is not used lightly. In his odd but insightful study of the various symbolic entanglements between gold, cocaine, violence, and colonial labor in South America, anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, with suitably mythic overtones: “How perfect is gold, the great shape-changer, the liquid metal, the formless form.”
This “formless form,” however, undergoes a strange—we might say alchemical—transformation, from shining metal to the rarefied super-object known as money. In a long description based on a memoir by Captain Amasa Delano, Taussig recounts the nineteenth-century process of minting coins from gold bullion:
The gold ore was wetted and kneaded by blacks treading on it with their feet on a paved brick surface after which they put mercury on it so as to separate out the gold. Then the metal was heated, becoming red as blood. To get the liquid metal to run from its crucible, the spout was touched with a stick with a piece of cloth around it. When this stick made contact, there was a flash and the metal began to run in a stream not much thicker than a pipe stem. The bars of gold formed were subsequently squeezed flat by rollers until the thickness of a dollar or doubloon, by which time the bars had become sheets four feet long. A powerful press cut coins out from these thin sheets like a cookie cutter, and the pieces were turned to receive a milled edge. Then came the weighing.
For Taussig, this process reveals the machinations “both mysterious and everyday” by which a mineral becomes money—that is, how “gold and silver coins become enchanted, material things, aglow with a power emanating from deep within.” This base matter has been transformed, given exchange-value through formal regularity and sent off to participate in a global system of monetary transactions.
Gold coins are thus but one of the “minutiae in which the supernatural is secularized”: a haunted mineral is pulled from the earth and given an uncanny second life elsewhere.
The spectral mathematics that can turn reserves of gold into abstract instruments of monetary exchange—into financial products and debt instruments, derivatives and funds—operates through a barely comprehensible carnival of surrogates flashing back and forth through the global marketplace. Until the end of the Bretton Woods system in August 1971, when the US dollar was unilaterally decoupled from the international gold standard, gold served as a reliable, universally recognized equivalent for economic exchange.
Gold, in the words of Jean-Joseph Goux, himself citing Marx, had value precisely because it could so effectively disappear into the “circulation of substitutes.” This is a logic of exchange by which Object A can be traded for Object B, as long as we agree that Object B also refers, off-stage, to something else entirely: some standard or reserve for which it acts as a practical surrogate.
Before 1971, that off-stage presence—that silent original, sleeping in a state of eternal reservation—was gold.
To say, then, that there is an “economy” is thus to use shorthand for what Goux describes as “a regulated process of equivalents and substitutions,” whereby stand-ins, equivalents, and acceptable replacements all interact in occulted reference to an absentee original. The natural hard matter of gold, artificially extracted from the earth, thus becomes caught up in a supernatural system of objects: coins, bills, and derivatives—future duplicates and doubles.
In this context, the ongoing attempts to return the United States to the gold standard—by, for instance, perennial Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul—can be seen as an almost folkloristic attempt to put the genie of infinite derivative exchange back in the bottle.
Sites like Nevada’s Carlin Trend thus serve as base points for this process, emitting endless phantasms in an economic fiction of equivalents—derivative products that refer to one another in a superstition of indirect exchange referred to as the economy—to such an extent that we might say these mines can never be refilled. Or, more accurately, they can only be overfilled, stuffed beyond capacity with the carnival of substitutes their hollowing-out has, however inadvertently, unleashed.
In 2007, David Maisel began work on a group of photographs called “American Mine,” part of a larger and older series known as “The Mining Project.” These images document, in extraordinary abstract swaths of color, the emergent geometries of mines along the Carlin Trend.
Scattered across Maisel’s images is a forensic survey of cuts and incisions—wounds that will outlive us, scars that won’t go away—older surgeries through which modernity has, in effect, been created. The mines of the Carlin Trend remain unhealed—in fact, year on year, they are growing—a raw scurvy of rocks exposed on a scale so monumental that geologists estimate mines, not cities, will be the final trace of humanity left visible in a hundred million years’ time.
Vast terraced bowls step down—and down and, impossibly, further down—tracking dead faults and mineralization fronts on a scale only made clear when we notice 16-ton trucks like specks of dust on canyon walls. Discolored oceans of chemical runoff wash across vehicle tracks with acid tides. Retaining walls and stabilized slopes loom over assembled superscapes of mine detritus, abandoned shells of industrial insects dwarfed by the world they’ve helped create.
In these scenes, geotextile mats have all but replaced the earth’s surface, offering instead a deathless, replicant topography. Artificial hills, each uncannily and exactly like its neighbor, roll from one side of the frame to the other, shifting in tandem with commodities prices, their malleable geography thus forever resistant to mapping. The mines grow and metastasize as voids: storm fronts of negative space exploding with their own slow thunder into the planet.
What is of particular interest in Maisel’s “American Mine” series is its revelation of the injuries at the start of the commodity chain: planetary wounds, seemingly beyond the breadth of nature, out of which commodities have been extracted for later exchange.
The production of economically recognizable objects can thus be seen as a kind of terrestrial focusing: out of the chaos of the mine site, with great lakes clouded by geochemical effluent and abstract landforms like ritual mounds from human prehistory, pristine products eventually emerge, assembled from these heavy elements torn so roughly from the ground. Out of the carcinogenic discord of rock dust, circuit boards appear.
In a sense, it is surprising that the computers, phones, batteries, television sets, and other mundane electronics that fill the markets of the world are so free of this fallout, so astringently cleansed of the geological evidence of their own creation. Or perhaps we might say that it is precisely this stripping-away of a product’s elemental birth that gives it its later value and utility. Such products are ironically de-terrestrialized: washed of the very planet from which they came.
I owe a huge thank you to David Maisel and editor Alan Rapp for inviting me to participate in the Black Maps book, which is an absolutely gorgeous compendium of Maisel’s work, as well as to Sina Najafi for his editorial feedback before this essay ran in Cabinet Magazine. You can see some photos of Black Maps over at the publisher’s website.
Finally, if you would like to read some previous posts here on BLDGBLOG about Maisel’s work, don’t miss “The Fall” or “Library of Dust,” among many other short posts; and be sure to read the interview with David Maisel published in The BLDGBLOG Book.
From the earliest exposed copper wires vulnerable to shorting out in San Francisco’s morning fog to 1970s phone phreaks and the future of NSA surveillance, it was a great talk; you can view the slides here (and follow Rick on Twitter for yet more).
[Image: From the Ellensburg Daily Record, June 16, 1914].
Amidst dozens of examples and images in his talk, the one that really stood out for architectural purposes was his citation of something called the “human telephone,” as originally reported in the Ellensburg Daily Record on June 16, 1914. A reorganized and cleaned-up version of that article appears above.
As Prelinger described it, the human telephone was like an electromagnetic update to the oracle at Delphi: a lone female figure with access to distant voices, dancing slowly across a dance floor secretly wired from below, an interactive surface whose hidden technology extended up into her very clothing.
There were copper wires woven through her dress, copper-soled shoes on her feet, even copper nails hammered in the floor below, and this all effectively turned her into a living telephone network—the “human telephone” of the article’s title—receiving voices from some continent-scale network invisible to spectators’ eyes. Oracular and alluring, she would then invite members of the audience to join her in this choreography, where ghostly conversations-at-a-distance would ensue.
[Image: An otherwise irrelevant photo of people ballroom dancing, via Wikipedia].
In Prelinger’s own words:
Prior to the opening of PPIE [the Panama Pacific International Exhibition], Paciﬁc Telephone was asked to furnish service to the Ball of All Nations in May 1914. They built a hidden network of wires under the ﬂoor, connected with copper nails set close apart in the ﬂoor. The spouse of a telco employee wore copper-soled shoes from which wires ran up through her clothing to a telephone set. She asked her dancing partners whom they’d like to talk with, and suddenly they were on the phone. A switchboard operator listened in on all conversations and whenever she heard a name rushed through a call on special lines.
This wired ballroom—like some telephonic update of the khôra, that Platonic dance floor and moving surface so mythologically important to the first days of Western architecture—presents us with an absolutely incredible image of people waltzing amidst voices, metallurgically connected to a matrix of wires and lines extending far beyond the room they first met within.
The copper woman in the center of it all becomes more like an antenna, stepping and turning inside a glossolalia of distant personalities all vying for time on the invisible network she controls with every move of her feet. Sheathed in metal, she is part golem, part conjurer, part modern oracle, kicking off the weird seance that was the early telephone system, guiding us through a switchboard of words from nowhere all woven together in this awesome dance.
Gold—the price of which has nearly quadrupled over the past decade—is now being purchased (and hoarded) on such a massive scale that the vaults of New York City have run out of space to store it all in.
[Image: Stackin’ it at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City].
The Wall Street Journal reports this week that “fleets of armored trucks piled with gold bars and coins have been streaming out of midtown Manhattan” in a mass movement, perhaps geologically comparable to a landslide, of financialized minerals.
HSBC has apparently “issued an edict that it wanted retail investors to remove their bullion to make space for big institutional customers,” The First Post adds, and so “owners of vaults and warehouses across the United States have had to jump to action.” However, removing gold from the basements of New York City is “easier said than done,” they add—especially as it requires “something approaching a military operation” to get these huge quantities of extraordinarily valuable metal off the island.
The headline sums it up: “Armored trucks leave NYC ‘loaded with gold‘.”
[Image: The solid gold walls of the U.S. Bullion Depository at Ft. Knox].
In fact, some massive new gold heist film should now be forced into production, set in the over-securitized labyrinth of vaults beneath a skyscraper in midtown, a kind of post-Italian-Job-remake example of urban super-thievery, complete with glimpses of the complicated overlapping spatial histories of an earlier island geography, from New York’s forgotten underground rivers (which our criminals could perhaps scuba-dive through) to inexplicable brick walls (bumped up against where the robbers’ maps only show mud). A small baroque pavilion in Central Park could be involved, or perhaps huge rooms of subsurface shelving deep beneath the New York Public Library where CGI-friendly radar equipment could be tested by our future perpetrators.
(Original gold story spotted by Steve Silberman).
There’s a spectacular new book coming out at the end of this summer called Library of Dust, by photographer David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books. I had the intensely exciting – and flattering – opportunity to write one of the book’s introductory essays; that essay now re-appears below.
I first learned about Library of Dust when I interviewed Maisel back in 2006 for Archinect. In 1913, Maisel explained, an Oregon state psychiatric institution began to cremate the remains of its unclaimed patients. Their ashes were then stored inside individual copper canisters and moved into a small room, where they were stacked onto pine shelves.
After doing some research into the story, Maisel got in touch with the hospital administrators – the same hospital, it turns out, where they once filmed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and he was granted access to the room in which the canisters were stored.
Over time, however, the canisters have begun to react chemically with the human ashes held inside them; this has thus created mold-like mineral outgrowths on the exterior surfaces of these otherwise gleaming cylinders.
There was a certain urgency to the project, then, as “the span of time that these canisters are going to be in this state is really finite,” Maisel explained in the Archinect interview, “and the hospital is concerned that they’re now basically corroding.”
So when I was there just a few weeks ago, photographing for I think the fourth time, there was a proposal being floated that each canister be put into its own individual plastic bag, and then each bag would go into its own individual black box that’s made for containing human ashes. And that would be it.
To me, the arc of the project – if it ends like that, which it seems it probably will – has a certain kind of conceptual logic to it that I appreciate. I appreciate the form and the story of these canisters, that they’re literally breaking down further every day, even between my visits to the hospital. My time of doing it, then, is finite as well.
In order to deal with the fragility of the objects, and to respect their funerary origins, Maisel set up a temporary photography studio inside the hospital itself. There, he began photographing the canisters one by one.
He soon realized that they looked almost earthlike, terrestrial: green and blue coastal forms and island landscapes outlined against a black background. But it was all mineralogy: terrains of rare elements self-reacting in the dark.
Maisel’s photos have now been collected into a gorgeous, and physically gigantic, book. It’s expensive, but well worth checking out.
The following is my own essay for the book; it appears alongside texts by Terry Toedtemeier and Michael Roth.
In Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, an unnamed man finds himself walking through an unnamed town. Its depopulated spaces are framed most prominently by a Clocktower, a Gate, and an Old Bridge. The nameless man is told almost immediately to visit the town’s central Library – an unspectacular building that “might be a grain warehouse” for all its allure. “What is one meant to feel here?” the man asks himself, crossing a great, empty Plaza. “All is adrift in a vague sense of loss.”
Once inside the Library, the man meets a Librarian. The two of them sit down together, and the man prepares to read dreams. They are not fairy tales written in pen and ink, however, but the psychic residues of long-dead creatures, a gossamer field of electrical energy left behind in the creatures’ bleached skulls. Weathered almost beyond recognition, one such skull is “dry and brittle, as if it had lain in the sun for years.” The skull has been transformed by time into something utterly unlike itself, marked by processes its former inhabitant could not possibly have anticipated.
Each skull is the most minimal of structures, seemingly incapable of bearing the emotions it stores hidden within. One skull in particular “is unnaturally light,” we read, “with almost no material presence. Nor does it offer any image of the species that had breathed within. It is stripped of flesh, warmth, memory.” It is at once organic and mineralogical – living and dead.
The skull is also silent, but this silence “does not reside on the surface, [it] is held like smoke within. It is unfathomable, eternal” – intangible. One might also add invisible. This “smoke” is the imprint of whatever creature once thought and dreamed inside the skull; the skull is an urn, or canister, a portable tomb for the life it once gave shape to.
The Librarian assists our nameless narrator by wiping off a thin layer of dust, and the man’s dream-reading soon begins.
Dust is a peculiar substance. Less a material in its own right, with its own characteristics or color, dust is a condition. It is the “result of the divisibility of matter,” Joseph Amato writes in his book Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible. Dust is a potpourri of ingredients, varied to the point of indefinability. Dust includes “dead insect parts, flakes of human skin, shreds of fabric, and other unpleasing materials,” Amato writes.
Many humans are allergic to dust and spend vast amounts of time and money attempting to rid their homes and possessions of it, yet dust’s everyday conquest of the world’s surfaces never ends. Undefended, a room can quickly be buried in it.
Dust lies, of course, at the very edge of human visibility: it is as small as the unaided eye can see. And dust is not necessarily terrestrial. “Amorphous,” Amato continues, “dust is found within all things, solid, liquid, or vaporous. With the atmosphere, it forms the envelope that mediates the earth’s interaction with the universe.” But dust is found beyond that earthly sphere, in the abiotic vacuum of interstellar space, a freezing void of irradiated particles, where all dust is the ghostly residue of unspooled stars, astronomical structures reduced to mist.
Strangely representational, the chemistry of this stardust can be analyzed for even the vaguest traces of unknown components; these results, in turn, are a gauge for whatever hells of radiation once glowed, when the universe burned with intensities beyond imagining. Those astral pressures left chemical marks, marks which can be found on dust.
Such dust – vague, unspectacular, bleached and weathered by a billion years of drifting – can be read for its astronomical histories.
Dust, in this way, is a library.
A geological history of photography remains unwritten. There are, of course, entire libraries full of books about chemistry and its relationship to the photographic process, but what the word chemistry fails to make clear is that these photographic chemicals have a geological origin: they are formed by, in, and because of the earth’s surface.
Resists, stops, acids, metals, fixes – silver-coated copper plates, say, scorched by controlled exposures of light – produce imagery. This is then called photography. Importantly, such deliberate metallurgical burns do not have to represent anything. Photography in its purest, most geological sense is an abstract process, a chemical weathering that potentially never ends. All metal surfaces transformed by the world, in other words, have a literally photographic quality to them. Those transformations may not be controlled, contained, or domesticated, but the result is one and the same.
Photography, in this view, is a base condition of matter.
David Maisel’s photographs of nearly 110 funereal copper canisters are a mineralogical delight. Bearded with a frost of subsidiary elements, their surfaces are now layered, phosphorescent, transformed. Unsettled archipelagos of mineral growths bloom like tumors from the sides and bottoms – but is that metal one sees, or some species of fungus? The very nature of these canisters becomes suspect. One is almost reluctantly aware that these colors and stains could be organic – mold, lichen, some yeasty discharge – with all the horror such leaking putrescence would entail. Indeed, the canisters have reacted with the human ashes held within.
Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.
In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals – anonymous. Do we see in Maisel’s images then – as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet – the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?
After all, these ash-filled urns were photographed only because they remain unclaimed; they’ve been excluded from family plots and narratives. A viewer of these images might even be seeing the fate of an unknown relative, eclipsed, denied – treated like so much dust, eventually vanishing into the shells that held them.
It is not a library at all – but a room full of souls no one wanted.
Yet perhaps there is something altogether more triumphant at work here, something glorious, even blessed. There is a profoundly emotional aspect of these objects, a physical statement that we, too, will alter, meld with the dust and metal: an efflorescence. This, then, is our family narrative, not one of loss but of reunion.
There is a broader kinship being proclaimed, a more important reclamation occurring: the depths of matter will accept us back. We will be rewelcomed out of living isolation. We are part of these elements, made of the dust that forms structures in space.
Maisel’s photographs therefore capture scenes of fundamental reassurance. The mineralized future of everything now living is our end. Even entombed by metal, foaming in the darkness with uncontrolled growths – there is splendor.
To disappear into this metallurgical abyss of reactions – photographic, molecular – isn’t a tragedy, or even cause for alarm. There should be no mourning. Indeed, Maisel’s work reveals an abstract gallery of the worlds we can become. Planetary, framed against the black void of Maisel’s temporary studio, the remnant energies of the long dead have become color, miracles of alteration. There are no graves, the photographs proclaim: only sites of transformation.
That is our final, inhuman release.
At the end of winter 2005, David Maisel traveled to a small city in Oregon. There were bridges, plazas, and gates. He was there to locate an old psychiatric hospital – a building now housing violent criminals – because the hospital held something that interested him.
Upon arrival, he met with the head of security, who already knew why Maisel had come. The two of them walked down a nearby corridor, where Maisel was shown what he’d been looking for. It was an isolated room behind a locked door – smaller, less official, than expected.
Within it was the Library of Dust.
• • •
David Maisel’s Library of Dust is available both through Chronicle Books and through Amazon.com – though you can also buy a signed copy through photo-eye.
Don’t miss my earlier interview with David over at Archinect – and, at some point soon, take a long trip through David’s website.
(Thanks to Joseph Antonetti for his help with the images – and to editor Alan Rapp for instigating this book in the first place).