Dirt and Dust
Media, as with sound, is usually thought of as immaterial, but as media theorist Jussi Parikka explains, “Media history is one big story of experimenting with different materials from glass plates to chemicals, from selenium to coltan, from dilute suphuric acid to shellac silk and gutta percha, to processes such as crystallization, ionization, and so forth” (Parikka 2012: 97). Parikka's discussion of media and the concept of dust leads the way into a discussion of media – and in this case sounding media – through physical matter. He describes this approach by stating, “I use dust to talk of global labor, media materialism of digital culture, and how to approach this topic through such non-human nanoparticles” (Parikka 2013: n.p.). It is not a great leap from thinking about dust to contemplating dirt. Digital hardware begins and ends in the dirt. Its components are dug up from the dirt in copper, coltan, and coal mines. Ore becomes copper wire, and coltan becomes tantalum capacitors. Coal is used to power electricity generators, an element involved in every step in the media chain, from the factory where the hardware is built to powering it. Coal is an extremely dirty material, yet these coal-based processes are “cleaned up”, removing all trace of grime or smudges, and electrical energy itself is dreamed of as one day being clean.
We cannot imagine nor see the dirtiness of this coal as we pick up our iPads, for example, their surface buffed and the material histories of the product wiped away. But what would happen if we imagined our media as not only physical but as dirty? What if we opened up the black boxes that encase media hardware and paid close attention to the materials that produce our digital environments?
Physical media derives from any number of unclean materials and practices, perhaps foremost being the mining industry (this is especially applicable for those of us residing in Australia). While we may imagine that the unblemished surfaces of our shiny devices are free from the grime of the everyday – flawless and pure – we do not have to dig far below the surface to find that these technologies are anything but untainted and dirt-free. Jane Bennett in her discussion of a massive electrical blackout in August 2003, states: “To the vital materialist, the electrical grid is better understood as a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood” (Bennett 2010: 23). If we employ this approach to understand assemblages, then an unpacking and critical investigation of our assumptions as regards materials is required. Media does not emerge fully formed, and all of the elements that make up any technology carry a multitude of histories that coalesce to form a conglomeration of pasts, presents, and futures.
While these technologies have come out of the ground, they will also end their days in the ground as e-waste. In the form of waste, our designed-for-obsolescence technologies re-enter the dirt. The encounter with dirt here must be read as a bad encounter. The components of our digital hardware devices do not merely re-enter the earth like compost; they do not break down into the materials from which they were formed. In this case, the hard materials are deposited into the earth, where they leach toxic waste through the strata of electronic waste. We can imagine, as many have, a future archaeological dig discovering layers of compacted minerals – anomalous and geologically removed from where they would be expected.
There are two streams of thinking here: the first is one in which objects have a long and deep history created from a vast assemblage of materials; the second is one in which media is not clean but rather a grubby conglomeration of materials ripe for sounding. By analyzing sound-focused work not only through the sound produced for the work but also through the material components involved in producing the sound as well as the assemblages of materials that lead to the physical installation, we can think about more than abstract sound. Artists who work with materials in mind are numerous in Australia, and the remainder of the paper will discuss a series of case studies from contemporary art installations.