Throughout 2022 I worked alongside a group of geophysicists working on the Horizon EU funded project GREENPEG. The project aims to find European reserves of Lithium bearing minerals and speaks directly to the EU’s policy papers on Critical Raw Materials. Having just concluded work on the video that came out of the project I was asked to write an edition of their newsletter, discussing my project, our collaboration and my thoughts around energy transition:
How do human technologies physically sculpt the surface of the planet? How does the now commonplace remote perspective from satellites and drones change the way we perceive Earth? To what extent do these activities turn landscapes themselves into technologies that exist only for human purposes? As a visual artist whose work deals with the relationship between technology and landscape, these are the things I spend my time thinking about.
In searching for scientific collaborators using hyperspectral imaging to look for critical minerals I came across GREENPEG. My interest in multi and hyperspectral imaging is less to do with their aesthetic qualities than it is their epistemics. Applying a spectral index, shifts the vertical gaze into an instrumental colour space designed to reveal certain material qualities, so looking at a landscape through this lens presupposes the function of that landscape: to provide food, to provide metals, to sequester carbon.
When I arrived at Hakonhals in Norway, the effect of this instrumentalising of landscape was plain to see. This is one of the most beautiful wildernesses that I have visited, right next door to an open quarry. I can’t pretend I wasn’t horrified at the thought of the quarry extending across the entire hilltop, which seemed the likely consequence of the surveys being conducted. Yet, resourcing energy transition from landscapes such as this, within Europe, would—if refinement and manufacturing were also onshored—dramatically shrink the distance these metals travel and their contingent emissions. But that cost coming from the habitat of the sea eagles who glided above us seemed unjust. This is just one of the many double-binds that energy transition presents us with.
For the last five years I’ve been thinking about how visual cultures and digital technologies are implicated in the climate crisis. What are the environmental impacts of an artistic practice that relies on new cameras, laptops and ever increasing file sizes? Industry may have spent much of the last decade persuading consumers that the digital is immaterial, but the closer one studies its resource requirements the more catastrophic they seem. Under the present extractive model, and with planned obsolescence still standard practice, perpetuating a digital economy seems to simply be incompatible with a habitable planet.
Working with GREENPEG made me realise the extent to which the digital media I work with and spend my time thinking about are materially contiguous with the turbines and photovoltaic cells required for energy transition. The culture industry is just as implicated in the climate crisis as the automobile industry. But visual culture is also embedded in the practices of science and the technics of geophysical prospecting. We make images from the metals in the ground, but images of the ground also make those metals available to us. There is then a cyclical relationship between images and minerals: we use images to produce minerals that are then used to produce images, another kind of circular economy.
In Norway I met the NGU and IFU teams for the first time and quickly became fascinated with the different survey techniques used to render the landscape. Long cables stretched across outcropping bedrock seemed to pre-empt the fibre optics that those same rocks could later become, the sledgehammer strikes of the piezoelectric tests sounded like premonitions of mining activity in the region. In Ireland, looking at capped drill holes so close to bronze age archaeological sites brought home the long entanglement of human histories with rocks: from casting spear heads to powering motors. And in Austria, the proximity of the radar station positioned GREENPEG’s ground penetrating radar in relation to an inquisitive exploration of the cosmos: simultaneously gazing inward and outward.
Many of the scientists who generously accommodated me will be surprised that, of all the video I shot on location, only a couple of minutes have been used in the final work. But looking at specific locations also tended to localise the scope of the work. To think about the planetary consequences of multispectral imaging required the planetary perspective of Sentinel. However, much of the audio is sourced from GREENPEG’s survey gear, particularly the radiometric and conductivity equipment. Using these sounds emphasises the machinic nature of these landscapes.
It has been a long road for me to arrive at making this work. One which probably began with taping music from the radio as a boy: making magnetic recordings of spectral transmissions on a portable stereo. Technology, people often seem to say, has come a long way since then, and yet it now threatens our very survival, so maybe it has actually regressed.
When I was a child, French philosopher Paul Virilio wrote of how technologies had collapsed the horizon, imploding planetary expanse into instantaneous communications. Perhaps the opportunity presented by an energy transition combined with rapid degrowth is to once again experience the vastness of Earth and the slowness of its geologic time.
The resulting video, Spectral Index was commissioned and is now hosted by the Australian festival Avantwhatever, and will hopefully be exhibited elsewhere in the near future. For me, the journey continues. Next month I drive to the Netherlands to visit a spectral geologist who is experimenting with using rocks as batteries. On the way back, I will stop to oversee the printing of a book from a previous project, Petrified Media, which will be published by The Eriskay Connection this autumn. I would like to thank everyone at GREENPEG who contributed to this journey.