Archive for March, 2008

No regret to not inform

March 17, 2008

blogger’s delinquency: although posted in march 08, this was written in october 07

Last week I went with a couple of friends to the Renaissance Society in Chicago to see a new piece by Steve McQueen called Gravesend, a 17 minute video (transferred from 35 mm film, projected in a HUGE dark space) about coltan mining in the Congo.

The poster essay [see Renaissance Society website] written by Hamza Walker describes the film as “unapologetically abstract” and “resolutely purged of any information illustrating economic links….”

I feel unapologetically bothered about such an artistic strategy.

I’ m sure many will find the piece beautiful. In the most arresting sequences we see or barely see in the dim light, miners (black), shoveling in a chiaroscuro pit. We see close-ups of their hands (black) picking little bits out of muddy clumps or out of walls or breaking larger clumps with a hammer, again to pick the bits from the chunks and wash them in a stream…. And then we see close-ups of industrial processes, preternaturally clean, featuring a robotic arm seizing and repositioning what look like coltan ingots to further, in mechanical rhythm, a process we don’t understand. Linking the shots of hands groping mud and the machinic purity, nothing more than a black and white animation of squiggly lines based on the currents or geographic track of the Congo River. After the precise robotic sorting of ingots, we will soon restart the loop back at the mine, after stopping for a ponderous sunset over an industrial harbor, ostensibly referring to the English town of Gravesend, from which the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, relates his tale. No additional contexts along the supply chain. Not an abstract peek at that terribly abstract thing, the markets trading coltan futures and other derivatives, nor, more concretely, the parts that go into cell phones and computers or the hands that assemble those goods, nor the price, feature and brand wars that keep cell phones “moving” in the market, nor the mountains of phones abandoned for new models. Outside of the camera’s tight frames on the bodies laboring in shadows and their eager hands, nothing about the decades of war and atrocity in the scramble to control the mineral resources of the Congo.

That job is left to the curator’s essay (Walker’s) which does provide some history and general details about the Democratic Republic of Congo and the economics of coltan. So, the division of labor referenced in McQueen’s film – both obliquely and obviously– is reiterated in the gallery: artist will do the resolutely purified positioning of parts and curator will do the heavy lifting of background explaining and connecting to lived histories in our world now. This is not the only place that conventional divisions of symbolic labor are observed. (more…)