Liu Chuang, Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (2018).
The Anthropocene discourse in the past decade has not only shaped scientific debates but transformed artistic expressions and practices globally, as evident in the “geological turn” in the global art scene that highlights geological subjects in the extractivist zones all around the world. Recent multi-channel video installations, such as Vietnamese American artist Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony (2016), Shanghai-based Chinese visual artist Liu Chuang’s Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (2018), and Lithium Lake and the Lonely Island of Polyphony (2020) depict histories and processes of global commodities created by geological extraction-motivated capitalism—from the Peruvian guanos, bitcoins powered by cheap hydroelectric power in Southwest China, to lithium extracted from Chinese seawater in the Northwest.
Building on recent theorizations of geomorphic aesthetics, geontologies in media art, and environmental justice/geo-justice1 , this essay argues we need to develop geontocritical readings of art2—especially those that that use ecocritical frameworks to examine art objects and practices and that focus on the geological by assessing the complex intersections and entanglements among human and nonhuman actors as geological forces that act on multiple spatial and temporal scales in the Anthropocene epoch.
Geontocritical readings of art do two things. It cultivates a new sensibility towards a world of entangled existences, by recognizing and restoring the agential capacities of nonhuman geological beings broadly defined (water soil, guano, bitcoins) that shape our world. Secondly, it advocates for promoting geo-justice for the human and nonhuman, via creative means of artistic expressions and practices. In brief, it is what T.J. Demos describes as “justice-based environmental arts, or aesthetic practices exploring entangled or intersectionalist socioecologies” that “forcefully materialized formations of politico-ecological aesthetics and practice”3. The Anthropocene enables us to see the vulnerability of both human and nonhuman beings caused by the many environmental crises and injustices, as a result of settler colonialism and extractivist capitalism that took place over the past centuries. From the guano miners in Peru in the 19th century, to the bitcoin miners and indigenous populations that undergone forced displacements in contemporary China, the precarious human subjects have all been reduced to what can be fittingly termed “huminerals” (人礦 rén kuàng), a neologism that emerged in China in early 2023, to refer to people who are “relentlessly exploited by society until they are eventually discarded on the refuse pile.”4 It highlights the fact that humans are being rendered into mute resources. One of geontocritical art’s functions would be to restore the subjectivities and voices of the “huminerals”, and more broadly the geological beings (both humans and nonhumans), and speak on behalf of them via artistic languages and expressions, which could, to a certain extent, be seen in Dinh Q. Le and Liu Chuang’s recent video art installations.
Lê’s The Colony showcases the Chincha Islands’ guano mining and explores the intricate histories of Peruvian guano extractions. For centuries, the large population of Peruvian boobies in the region have produced abundant guano on its soil, which was made an excellent fertilizer for foreign markets. In the mid-19th century, the demand for guano peaked in the West, resulting in over a hundred islands being colonized and claimed, and a generation of Asian guano miners were forced into harsh labour. The guano industry collapsed in the mid-20th century, but experienced a resurgence in recent years due to the growing environmental consciousness, transforming guano from a depleted resource of colonial capitalism to an eco-friendly fertilizer. Focusing on a different form of extraction, Liu’s Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (hereafter Bitcoin Mining), exhibited in Shanghai in his 2019 solo show “Liu Chuang: Earthbound Cosmology” reflects on the cryptocurrency mining powered by low-cost hydroelectricity in contemporary Southwest China. It traces the exchanges between energy and digital information, in the abandoned hydroelectric plants that are found in the remote mountainous areas. In 2020, Liu continues his exploration of capitalist extractivism and nature engineering in Lithium Lake and the Lonely Island of Polyphony (hereafter Lithium Lake), a work commissioned by the Taipei Biennial 2020 co-curated by Bruno Latour, Martin Guinard and Eva Lin. The work focuses on lithium extractions from the salt lakes in Northwestern China and their socio-environmental impacts on indigenous communities and particularly their polyphonic music traditions.
Lê established his reputation as an artist for his photographic series that made use of the grass mat weaving techniques he learned from his childhood in Vietnam (Figure 1). Adopting the principles of handcutting and weaving of photographs to create an image of new meanings and differing perspectives, Lê extends this practice to moving images in The Colony, to offer a more interactive and immersive experience that also provides multiple perspectives. Exhibited at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham in 2016, viewers were surrounded by multiple screens hung on the three sides of the wall, and two projected on the ground. They were required to shift their attention back and forth among the screens, in order to make sense of the cross-temporal, multi-spatial geological subjects the artist presented us—the guano, the landscapes of the Chincha Islands, the shabby interiors of the abandoned workers’ dormitory, the ghostly miners in the 19th century (depicted in animated figures), the flock of seabirds that have inhabited the islands for centuries, and the present miners at work. These images offer us glimpses of the fragments of the entangled histories of the Chincha Islands, with shots that are mostly taken by drone cameras that survey the trenches and infrastructure, as well as the concrete edifices and abandoned dormitories of the once thriving guano industry.
The three channels in The Colony are structured as three chapters on Lê’s subject on guano mining on the Chincha Islands from the past to the present. The first chapter shows us aerial long shots of the flock of Peruvian boobies flying over the vast and empty islands (Figures 2 & 3). On the second screen, the drone cameras slowly descend into the decrepit workers’ dormitory building, and exploratively sweep over the haunting corridors and vacant rooms full of graffiti writing and pinned-up pornographic photos (Figures 4 & 5). In contrast to the natural landscapes in the first channel and the ruinous building interiors in the second, the last screen highlights the human presence and presents us scenes of present-day guano mining activities and the workers on the islands (Figures 6 & 7). Although these workers are no longer confined to the islands nor made to endure the same degree of hardship and exploitation compared to the miners centuries ago, they continue to be “covered in guano dust, their uniform appearance making it seem like an older time somehow” (Butt and Lê, 27), as if the working conditions and labour-intensive extraction practices have not changed over all these years. The Colony compresses the three channels into a geological space-time where the present miners at work coexist with the ghosts of the Asian miners of the 1850s, and the guano-covered natural landscapes like the way they were before being discovered and exploited by humans.
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Trailer: Dinh Q. Lê, The Colony (2016).
“The Colony: Dinh Q. Lê in conversation with James Lingwood”, Artangel, 2016.
The efficacy of geological art is also determined by how the museum and gallery spaces exhibit their installation works. The size of the space, the walls, the lighting, and the exact order and dispositions of screens in the room all affect our experience of the work, as well as how the narratives of the subjects are to be perceived and understood. Liu’s Bitcoin Mining is a visual essay that takes us on a speculative journey through the history of technology, infrastructure, ecology, and finance, intertwining it with ethnographic research and intertextual references to global sci-fi film imaginaries. The video begins with black and white photos of Chinese cities in the late Qing dynasty where we see telephone wires hanging over classic Chinese architecture, a sign of the country’s early modernity with its technological advancement. The wires in the historical photos connect the early modern urban past to the rural present, where we see drone footage of the optic cables above the river valleys and hydroelectric dams in the rural areas. From there, the installation’s three screens are positioned adjacently, inviting viewers to immerse in a multidimensional visual experience that interweaves images of contrasting yet interconnecting subjects of the natural sublime: aerial shots of cables suspended over the expansive mountain ranges; drone footage capturing the deafening roars of dams and waterfalls; and the tranquil static close-ups of insects caught in spiderwebs. Eventually, the cameras all shift their focus towards a solitary bitcoin factory and the simulated interior of computers and fans, as if we have been taken into a technological abyss that glows in an eerie green light (Figures 9 to 13). Not only did the multi-screen video installation simulated a geological space-time that transformed the exhibition space temporarily into mountain ranges, dams and waterfalls, and the interior of a bitcoin mine in operation, it offers viewers an immersive experience of the complex connections among these seemingly unrelated spaces and entangled narratives that center on the geological beings.
Liu Chuang, Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities, Protocinema, Istanbul – Exhibition video, 2019.
Liu’s Lithium Lake was exhibited in Taipei Biennial 2020, a major international art exhibition co-curated byBruno Latour and Martin Guinard during the pandemic in 2020, which was titled after Latour’s short essay “We Don’t Seem to Live on the Same Planet—A Fictional Planetarium.” Despite its central focus on interspecies entanglements, planetary cosmologies, and decolonial agenda, the large-scale exhibition and its diverse range of works have been criticized for “predominantly reflect[ing] the perspectives of those with power and privilege, expressing a stifled, Western-centric perspective.”5 It raises the question of how art could enable us to really see from the perspectives, and listen to the voices, of the geological subjects?
In recent years, drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) have been frequently deployed in the production of films and video art works. Both Lê and Liu’s video works have relied heavily on drone technologies to effectively depict the vast landscapes and seascapes from aerial perspectives (Figure 14). However, drone perspectives have two fundamental shortcomings. First of all, it distances us from the ground. The aerial shots in Liu’s Bitcoin Mining and Lithium Lake keep a safe distance from its geological subjects. We do not see human presence, neither the bitcoin miners nor the indigenous inhabitants, in any of the drone shots. Uprooted from the ground, the images obstruct us from observing the actual impacts and damage on both the human beings and the nonhuman environments, and are thus hardly sufficient in providing the perspectives that are essential for bringing geo-justice to the local communities and individuals. Second, the drone perspective is one full of conflicts and ambivalence. They have never been a neutral or innocent tool being frequently used for surveillance and military purposes, serving the interests of authorities and corporations. Lê calls it “an aggressor, a kind of alien of the future, but at the same time it is utterly a machine we live with today… [It] has the visual power to suggest a form of knowledge that invades.”6 It is also “the eye of God looking down.”7The Colony ends with a shot showing a drone returning to the hands of the film crew, which critic Zoe Butt interprets as an expression of “giv[ing] humanity back the control”8 However, we cannot help but question whose “humanity” is signified here in this context. To avoid replicating the Big Brother or the privileged classes’ perspectives, Schnepf uses the case of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to argue that drones can also be deployed as a tool of sousveillance, if it could be used to observe and monitor the authorities, and “disrupts the power relationship of surveillance.”9 The drones could be a different tool if the indigenous, and the geological others were to involve in using it, to co-create new perspectives and new forms of relational experience.
Towards the end of Bitcoin Mining, we see a montage of black-and-white photos of ethnic minorities women in China morphing into images of Queen Amidala from the Star Wars franchise (played by Natalie Portman), whose costumes are partially inspired by the traditional ethnic female clothing. (Figs 15 & 16) Liu’s speculative meditation suggests that, under the forces of urbanization and modernization in contemporary China, the real and the traditional are gradually replaced by the virtual and the fictional. The indigenous culture and history are now appropriated, replaced, and remembered only through Hollywoodized sci-fi reimaginations.
To restore the voices of the disappearing indigenous, both Bitcoin Mining and Lithium Lake have each included a scene of present indigenous women singing traditional folk songs in their own dialects. The works have also featured a female narration in the Muya dialect (木雅語) spoken by the ethnic minorities in Tibet and Sichuan, the population whose homelands are most affected by extractivist capitalist activities in recent years. The narration walks us through China’s technological progress over the century. It explains the concepts of the Zomia with reference to Willem van Schendel and James Scott’s theorization and writing; before proceeding to the principles of cryptocurrency, and the tales of the militarized legacy of cloud-based computing. In Lithium Lake, the same narrator explains to us a series of abstract ideas and the history of China’s development of science, hydrological projects, the technical principles of lithium extractions, and the idea of polyphonic music. Thought-provoking as the narrations may be, we cannot help but wonder if this is an ecofeminist voice of the subaltern that is critically resisting extractivist capitalism and petromasculinity, or is it merely the art creators putting complex concepts and technical language into the mouth of the indigenous female narrator, and feeding her with perspectives that further reassert the muteness of the ethnic communities? It reminds us of Spivak’s warning against “constructing the Other simply as an object of knowledge, leaving out the real Others because of the ones who are getting access into public places due to these waves of benevolence and so on”.10 Along similar lines, we are also reminded by Amitav Ghosh that “the act of speaking is the act of silencing.”11 The act of us speaking, is an act of silencing them. Instead of faking a geontocritical accent, is it possible to find a real voice of the geological Others that does not come from the positions of the intellectuals and the elites? It is when we begin to ask these questions persistently that we could think geontocritically with art.
This is part of the cluster GeoSemantics. Read the other posts here.
- Yusoff 2013, 2015; Povinelli 2017; Demos 2020.
- “Geonto-“ as taken from Povinelli’s geontologies that “intensif[ies] the contrasting components of nonlife (geo) and being (ontology) currently in play in the late liberal governance of difference and markets.”(Povellini, 2016:5).
- Demos, 20-21.
- Alexander Boyd, “WORD OF THE WEEK: HUMINERALS (人矿 RÉN KUÀNG)”, China Digital Times. Feb 13, 2023:https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2023/02/word-of-the-week-huminerals-%E4%BA%BA%E7%9F%BF-ren-kuang/.
- Leora Joy Jones, “Taipei Biennial 2020: You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet – Review”, 4A Papers, Issue 10. https://4a.com.au/articles/review-taipei-biennial-2020
- Butt and Lê, 26.
- Butt and Lê, 27.
- Butt and Lê, 29.
- Schnepf, 748.
- Spivak, 63.
- Taken from Amitav Ghosh’s lecture “Can the Non-Human Speak? Other Beings in Myth, Literature and Ethnography”, co-organized by the National Humanities Center and North Carolina State University, James B. Hunt Jr. Library Auditorium, April 4, 2023.