Tantalum-Memorial Reconstruction Offers the Ironic Links of the Congolese Diaspora to Coltan and the Electronics Industry

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Clockwise, Thomas Asmuth, Teck Liew, Matsuko Yokokoji, Sara Lowe and Ethan Miller at the keyboard at the San Jose Museum of Art Contemplate the Congoleze diaspora through Tantalum. Photo: Mike (Cookie Evans) Lowell.

Tantalum, is the collaborative work of Graham Harwood, Richard Wright and Matsuko Yokokoji, students from Goldsmiths University, SJSU’s Cadre Lab and other individuals interested in digital media and the complex social issues implicated in its use of industrial through information age technologies. First seen at San Jose’s Zero1 in 2008, Tantalum (described by Thomas Asmuth, below) was among eight selected for exhibition, from a group of sixty projects culled out of more than 1000 nominees for inclusion in the European Transmediale. It was reviewed by five international jurors of the biennale in 2009. Its first place award is an achievement that not only reflects upon the work of its team, but the overall character and potential of the digital artform to address sociopolitical issues.

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Coltan: the controversial mineral is extracted from Congolese soil for use in electronics products. Photo: from the Global e-Sustainability Initiative report on coltan mining in the Congo.

Thomas Asmuth writes:
Graham Harwood once said to me, “We complicate things.” There was no antagonism in Harwood’s voice when he said this. It simply meant he saw his artist role as provocateur; this is to say that he would rather incite questions than answer them. Our conversation was the start of a complex relationship which developed around the international FUSE residency project for 01SJ named Tantalum Memorial – Reconstruction. I was fortunate to become part of this team which included colleagues at CADRE Laboratory, the team of Harwood, Richard Wright and Matsuko Yokokoji , their students at Goldsmiths University, and many friends from Silicon Valley and around the world.

Tantalum Memorial – Reconstruction is a object of complexities in technology, aesthetics, social groups, histories, etc. The machine is a mash-up of today’s technology: databases, open source software, and secure IP communications and electromechanical switches originally developed in the 1890’s. When the sculpture of switches spring to life they physically demonstrate calls being made by members of the Congolese diaspora in London to one another.

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Tantalum‘s complex of switches and tracking mechanisms document the phone calls of Congolese expatriates displaced in the battle for control of Coltan. Photo:Mike (Cookie Evans) Lowell.

Much of this Congolese community was displaced after years of civil war. The wars have claimed 5.4 million lives since 1998. Officially the war ended 5 years ago, yet last month the New York Times reported on a study which estimates that 45,000 people continue to die every month. Much of the brutal conflict is fueled by the battles for control over natural resources which sell for inflated prices in the world market. Coltan, the raw ore from which Tantalum is extracted, is one of these spoils of war. It is valued for its role in the miniaturization of electronics and thus it is key in the technological and communications innovations of our time.

A lineage to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its deadly conflict resides in innumerable laptops, mobile phones, internet devices, PSP, car alarm remotes, and televisions. In this light, the Tantalum Memorial becomes an eerie memorial for the dead and the dislocated made possible by the very thing that displaced them. It is a monument to the complicity of the world’s desire to advance and the complex consequences it involves.

The ability (or attempt) to crossbreed narratives, histories, philosophies, technologies, and disciplines provides a critical platform to re-examine the world. While past critical studies have tried to find an objective platform to discuss culture from the outside, this hybrid and complicating method embeds itself with the full realization that it is complicit with its subject.

This is not a fatalistic attitude about the impossibility of hegemonic change. It can be the genuine revolutionary voice. Works of this kind are tangled in the hypocrisies to shed light on them through the best methods known. The criticisms about how these complicit methods perpetuate the issues rarely match the scale of the deployment or the satire it can illustrate.

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